Survey: Va. Parents Support All Forms of School Choice

Published March 1, 2009

Voters throughout Virginia’s lowest-income neighborhoods are strong supporters of school choice, a new poll reports.

In mid-January the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) announced the results of their Parental Choice Survey, given to residents throughout Norfolk, Petersburg, and Richmond, Virginia. At Petersburg High School, 99.9 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, and Norfolk’s median household income is $15,779.

Overwhelmingly, parents in all three locales support a variety of school choice options, including tax credits, special-needs scholarships, and charter schools. They are equally dissatisfied with the government-run schools they are currently being offered.

According to the survey, 69 percent of the 2,200 respondents favor a tax-credit scholarship program.

Choice Plan Offered

State Del. Christopher Saxman (R-Staunton) has sponsored three times a bill that would allow businesses and individuals to receive tax credits for contributions given to public school foundations, which then would use the money for extracurricular activities and capital projects. The bill also would create organizations authorized to give scholarships to eligible students to transfer from their district public school to another public or private school.

The most recent version of Saxman’s measure was defeated in the Senate Finance Committee last year.

“Competition makes schools better. Look at higher education in Virginia. It’s diverse, accessible, and affordable,” said Saxman. “Everyone supports choice in higher education, but not in K-12.”

Saxman and state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) will reintroduce the bill in the current legislative session.

Special-Needs Scholarships

Parents in the places surveyed demonstrated extremely strong support—90 percent—for a special-needs scholarship program giving families with disabled students the means to send those children to the school that best meets their needs.

According to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s 1997 study, “Do Private Schools Serve Difficult-to-Educate Students?” public schools don’t accept all special-needs students and instead decide to send them to private schools, at public expense. “Special-needs students are being sent to private schools through district funds. A special-needs scholarship program is more beneficial to both students and the public school” by allowing parents to make the choice, the report authors note.

Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Utah operate successful special-needs scholarship programs.

Parents participating in Florida’s McKay Disability Scholarship Program said the private schools in the program offered reduced class sizes and greater accountability in services for their children when compared with their previous, public schools. The parents also reported their children were teased by fellow students nearly 50 percent less often than when they had been in public schools, according to a study released by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in 2003.

Charter Schools

In a region with only one existing charter school, 70 percent of respondents said they support more charters. Virginia has only five statewide.

While state law in Virginia allows anyone to start a charter school, the regulatory burden makes doing so unattractive.

Generally, charter schools are public schools funded by state and federal tax dollars but given greater flexibility in how they spend their money. Virginia charters, however, are not granted that flexibility. Charters without legal and fiscal autonomy are almost indistinguishable from traditional public schools.

Allowing charters to be less regulated would open the doors for more to start up and succeed, ultimately giving Virginia families more of the choices they are asking for.

“Opponents of school choice often raise the specter of segregation in opposing choice, and it is true that choice was once used as a weapon to oppose integration,” said BAEO President Gerard Robinson. “But what I think we’re seeing now is a new generation whose focus is on educational excellence for their children, rather than re-fighting battles that have largely been won.”

Evelyn B. Stacey ([email protected]) is a research assistant at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California.

For more information …

“Do Private Schools Serve Difficult-to-Educate Students?” by Janet R. Beales and Dr. Thomas F. Bertonneau, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, October 1, 1997:

“Vouchers for Special Education Students: An Evaluation of Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program,” by Jay P. Greene, Ph.D. and Greg Forster, Ph.D., Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, June 2003: