The Friedman Report: School Choice Roundup

Published July 1, 2002

Getting School Board Members On Board

Teaching college students in Michigan convinced Lori Yaklin that America’s K-12 school system was in a deep state of disrepair. “Even my students from supposedly ‘good suburban schools’ were seriously lacking in fundamental skills,” she said.

Their lack of knowledge in history, ethics, economics, and citizenship alarmed her the most. “It literally made me fear for the future of our country.”

After “finagling herself” into a meeting of education reformers in Michigan, Yaklin became convinced she must do something to improve education in America. She joined forces with a small group of public school board members to start the Michigan School Board Leaders Association.

The Association uses a two-tier approach to promoting education reform measures: First, they recruit, train, and mobilize reform-minded school board members so they are able to initiate reforms at the local level. Membership includes board members from traditional public, charter, and private schools. Then, they “utilize the voice of these courageous reformers to shift public opinion,” according to Yaklin.

“Through press releases, legislative testimony, media interviews, debates, and speaking appearances we are able to promote child-centered reforms from the perspective of insiders,” she explained.

Yaklin believes school board members are perhaps in the best position of all school system insiders to voice the need for school choice reform. She points out most members of the public school establishment have, or at least perceive they have, a great deal at stake in the battle over the rights of parents to choose the best and safest schools for their children. To them, the battle is a turf war.

“But school board members do not generally receive salaries, nor must they worry about tenure or dues,” argued Yaklin. “If they are taking their civic duty seriously, they understand they are not serving schools; they are elected to ensure schools are serving parents and children.”

She points out many school board members are business leaders who understand the importance of competition in fostering excellence and efficiency. “The school establishment is clearly a monopoly, and we all know monopolies turn out poor products at high prices.”

This is why she doesn’t buy the mantra: “We need more money,” and has convinced school board members to combat this fallacy of school reform.

“I am encouraged to see leaders and citizens who are not willing to take excuses for our dismal test scores, especially among the nation’s poor. It has been thrilling to hear President Bush and Secretary of Education Paige speak the truth and promote school choice.

“I am confident we will see, as we have seen in every other area of our great country, free people in free markets creating excellence.”


Session Ends with Choice Gains, but No Tax Credits

When the Colorado Legislature ended its 2002 session at midnight on May 8, it had approved changes to laws regarding charter schools and online education that were positive for parental choice. But lawmakers failed to approve either of two new laws to establish tax credits for K-12 education.

Tax Credits: Senate Bill 163, introduced by Sen. Bruce Cairns (R-Aurora), would allow a taxpayer to take credit against school district property taxes for donations to organizations that award scholarships for children to attend independent or parochial schools, with benefits for renters also. The complex bill was postponed indefinitely in the Senate Education Committee.

“Just because the bill was killed, doesn’t mean the idea is dead,” said Cairns.

House Bill 1309, proposed by Rep. Nancy Spence (R-Centennial) and Sen. Rob Hernandez (D-Denver), would allow an income tax credit to taxpayers for donations to organizations that award educational scholarships to low-income children. At least 40 percent of the money raised would have to be spent on improving educational opportunities for students who attend public schools. The plan received endorsements from five of the state’s major newspapers, the Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Colorado Springs Gazette, Pueblo Chieftain, and the Fort Collins Coloradoan. This bill passed through the House but died in the Senate Education Committee. Although the measure was amended into other bills, none passed in the Senate.

Charter Schools: Charter schools received $7.8 million in per-pupil facilities funding, up from $6.4 million in the 2001-02 school year, but less than the $9 million Republicans had pushed for. Other changes also were made to the charter school law that would lower interest rates for bonds issued for the purchase of facilities.

Online Education: In 1998, the Colorado legislature passed a law allowing public school districts to create online education programs where students could complete their schoolwork via the Internet. However, the law specifically excludes participation by students who, in the prior year, are homeschooled or in a nonpublic school. This year there was a failed attempt to remove that exclusion. However, a measure was included and passed in the School Finance Act to provide funding for up to 135 children from nonpublic schools to participate in the program.
SRN Sources


Choice is Widespread — If You’re a Union Official

Looking for a school for their identical triplet boys, and unimpressed with the public schools, Kim Jones and her husband chose Lowell School in Washington, DC, a private school where next year’s tuition approaches $16,000 per student. The couple will manage to pay the tuition bill with the help of scholarship money and “cutting corners,” according to Washington Post reporters Valerie Strauss and Jay Mathews. Kim’s husband works at the National Education Association, which opposes school vouchers.
Washington Post
April 11, 2002


Tax Credit Program to Benefit More Children

When Florida’s education tax credit bill was approved last year, one of the restrictions on awarding the tax-credit-funded scholarships to low-income children was that the recipient child had to have spent the prior year in a public school. Under an amendment to the tax bill signed by Governor Jeb Bush in early May, that restriction was lifted for kindergartners and first-graders.

Choice Gains in School Code Revision

Also in early May, the Florida legislature approved a major revision to the state’s education law, streamlining separate sections of the code on elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education into a combined K-20 educational system—and translating the legalese into something the average citizen is more likely to understand.

The revised code, which Bush signed into law on May 16, contains a number of positive changes for school choice and district accountability. Significantly, a separate Division of Independent Education was created to serve families who are pursuing their child’s education outside the public school system.

McKay Scholarships: Four changes were made to ease the operation of the McKay program, which after only two years provides vouchers to some 5,000 special-education students. First, parents may now enroll their children at an independent schools in any quarter of the year, with the scholarship following the child. Second, enrollment procedures were simplified. Third, school districts have just 10 days, rather than 30, to notify the state Department of Education of the amount of the scholarship for an applicant. And fourth, if this notification is delayed, payments start anyway but at the lowest maintenance level.

Charter Schools: Charter school law initially provided that an applicant could appeal to the State Board of Education if a local school board denied a charter application. However, a positive recommendation from the State Board was not binding on the local school board, and so the recommendation could be ignored. The revised code removes that discretion and requires local boards to approve charter applications approved by the State Board.

Social Promotion: According to the current state education code, a Florida fourth-grader who cannot read at grade level must be held back unless there is “good cause” not to. Although only 69 percent of fourth-graders in 2001 could read at grade level, 97.3 percent were promoted to fifth grade. Under the new code, third-graders not reading at grade level must be held back, again unless there is “good cause” not to, but “good cause” is defined much more clearly.

Parental and Student Rights: All aspects of parental rights are now in one place in the school code, so that a parent quickly can review what rights apply to different aspects of schooling, such as sex education, for example. The code also requires that information regarding student religious rights be sent to all teachers, principals, and school board members.

Other Changes: While school board members in many states receive no pay, Florida’s school board members—whose workload generally consists of just 12 meetings a year—often receive more pay than starting teachers. Under the new code, school board members must vote to set their own pay at a public meeting. The new code also permits school boards to hire school principals without teaching and school administration credentials but with qualifications and/or experience that meet district policies. The amendment was introduced by Rep. Jerry Melvin (R-Fort Walton Beach).

“I can’t tell you how much it’s changing,” commented Patrick Heffernan, president of FloridaChild, a nonprofit organization that provides education information, assistance, and financial aid to Florida families. “We’re moving into a different level.”
SRN Sources


Teacher Union Wants to Run Failing Schools

Unhappy with Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan for his recent unexpected announcement that three failing city schools would be closed at the end of the current school year, Chicago Teacher Union President Deborah Lynch proposed an alternative: Let her union show what teachers can do by taking over some poorly performing schools and implementing the Success for All curriculum.

The Success for All program—which can cost up to $1 million in additional expenses per school—has worked in two Chicago schools, but has failed in three others. It is highly scripted and involves, among other things, reading 90 minutes a day, one-on-one tutoring, smaller class sizes, and a 40-minutes-longer school day.

Duncan agreed to try the experiment in two schools this fall, offering Lynch and her union two options:

  • free up funds for the program within the current administrative structure; or
  • take full responsibility—including financial—for running the schools, either as charter schools or contract schools.

Lynch’s next task: Finding two schools with teachers, principals, and Local School Councils willing to take up her proposal.
Chicago Tribune
May 8, 2002


Smear Campaign Blunts Booker Challenge in Newark

Newark Councilman Cory Booker’s fierce challenge to four-term incumbent mayor Sharpe James produced a lead in the polls despite James’ backing by almost every prominent Democrat in the state. But by May 14, a smear campaign plus support from out-of-state Democrats Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. turned that lead into a 47:53 margin of defeat for the young Yale-educated lawyer who moved to Newark six years ago to run for public office.

Booker raised $2.8 million for his campaign against $2.3 million by James, but the councilman’s past support of school vouchers put the Newark Teachers’ Union solidly behind James.

According to a New York Times report, James stopped by at the headquarters of the teacher union on election day to thank a roomful of helpers who were calling voters on his behalf. He accused Booker, a lifelong moderate Democrat, of being a Republican in Democrat clothing, a view also promoted by union president Joseph DelGrosso.

An article on James’ campaign Web site said Booker was “comfortable in the company of people whose political ancestors hosed down and blew up black children in Birmingham.” James also accused Booker of taking money from the Ku Klux Klan.

Booker vowed to continue fighting for the city, one of the poorest in the nation, and for two Council candidates in upcoming runoff elections.
New York Times
May 15, 2002
May 16, 2002


Education Tax Credit Bill in Committee

A K-12 education tax credit measure introduced in the New York Senate earlier this year is now in the Committee on Investigations, Taxation and Government Operations, chaired by Sen. Nicholas Spano (R-Westchester).

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Queens), has requested that the bill, the Educational Tax Incentives Act (S. 6274), be reported out of committee in order to give the full Senate an opportunity to vote on the bill before the end of the current session.

A parallel bill sponsored by Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Kings) was introduced into the Assembly (A. 9801). The bills seek to encourage New York taxpayers to support education by providing a tax credit against their state income tax for donations to scholarship-awarding organizations.
SRN Sources


School Choice Bill Progresses in Senate

After being narrowly approved in the Vermont House on April 17, the school choice bill H. 716 was assigned to the Senate Education Committee, whose chairman, Jean Ankeney (D-Chittenden), said she did not plan to take up the bill before the end of the session. But in a surprise move, and over Ankeney’s objections, Republicans on the Committee led by Sen. William Corrow (R-Orange) forced a 3-1 vote to send the bill back to the full Senate.

In early May, Senate President Pro-Tem Peter Shumlin referred the bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it is not expected to be considered further. However, the bill had not been expected to emerge from the Education Committee, either.

Although Shumlin had earlier expressed support for the kind of school choice embodied in H. 716, when the measured arrived in the Senate he called it “flawed” and said it “will destroy small schools.”

H. 716 would phase in a school choice program to allow parents the option of choosing a public school for their children, with approximately $4,500 in state block grant funding following the student to the chosen school. Under current law, passed two years ago, choice is restricted to a limited number of students in grades 9-12.
Vermont Education Report
April 23-26, 2002


Parents Urge Legislators to Restore Voucher Cuts

A group of about 70 parents and children travelled from Milwaukee to Madison on May 8 to speak to Wisconsin legislators about restoring cuts in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program that were approved by the Democrat-controlled State Senate. Parents reported getting conflicting signals from Milwaukee-area legislators who had voted for a state budget with the cuts, but who then assured them they were actually for the choice program.

The Republican-controlled Assembly approved a budget without cuts to the choice program. Negotiations are continuing to reconcile the two conflicting measures.
SRN Sources