Vouchers for Special-Needs Students Fail in Committee of Virginia Legislature

Published May 1, 2007

The Virginia House Appropriations Committee defeated Senate Bill 1419, the Tuition Assistance Grants for Children with Disabilities Act, by a 13-7 vote on February 16.

For the third consecutive year, the Virginia General Assembly failed to pass legislation that would allow special-needs students to attend schools of their parents’ choice. The hard-fought battle continued until the close of the two-year legislative session, but the teachers union and Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA) were successful in stopping legislative momentum.

“There are special-education students in Virginia who are not getting the education they deserve,” said Christian N. Braunlich, vice president of the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. “When the money follows the child, it benefits both public education students and those who choose to attend private schools.”

The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Walter Stosch (R-Glen Allen), would have provided a tuition assistance grant for public school students to attend a private school if their parents are dissatisfied with their children’s educational progress. Participating private schools would have to be non-religious and licensed to teach students with disabilities. Fewer than 100 schools in Virginia currently meet these standards.

The scholarship amount was to be limited to the state’s share of the child’s public school education and could not exceed $10,000 per year.

Arguing Money Issues

The VSBA did not return calls seeking comment, but in a February 16 post on the Virginia Education Association teachers union Web site, a blogger wrote:

“Senator Stosch’s SB1419 bit the dust in a contentious meeting of the House Appropriations Committee. … Delegates Phillips and Joannou revealed the legal problems the bill would pose for public schools. Phillips was relentless. … Delegate Landes pointed out that SB1419, despite Stosch’s assertions to the contrary, is a voucher bill.

“The result is that we, with your help, appear to have kept Virginia voucher free for another year.”

Braunlich called the claims against the bill “illogical and untrue.”

“They claim that this program bleeds public education funding dry, but considering Virginia’s school funding system, special-education scholarships actually help the public schools financially because only the state education funding will follow the child, and the local dollars remain with the local public schools,” Braunlich said.

Retaining Funding

While the maximum scholarship would have been capped at $10,000, the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy estimates the average grant would likely have been about $5,000.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, the average cost of educating a student with disabilities is $16,000. A significant portion of the average per-pupil expenditure would stay with the public schools. An average of $4,500 of local funding per pupil and an average of $850 per pupil of the state retail sales and use tax distribution would remain in each school system. Additionally, more than 85 percent of federal funds would have remained with the local public school system, which averages $560 per pupil.

“The VSBA wrongly claims that special education scholarships will lead to a skyrocketing increase in due process hearings leading to lawsuits against school systems, but the evidence shows that in Florida’s McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program, due process hearings have actually declined,” said Braunlich.

Moving Forward

Another educational option measure that made limited progress through the Virginia General Assembly was Del. Chris Saxman’s (R-Staunton) Public/Private Investment Tax Credit. The bill passed through the House of Delegates for the third year in a row, but the Senate Finance Committee did not vote on the measure before the close of the session on February 24.

The measure would have created income tax credits for businesses and individual taxpayers making contributions to eligible public school foundations and scholarship foundations.

For individual taxpayers, the annual credit was to be 100 percent of the contribution, but could not exceed $800 for individual taxpayers and $1,200 for married couples. The amount of the annual credit for business entities would have been 90 percent of the contribution, with no limit on the dollar amount. The bill had a $20 million cap on total tax credits awarded annually, with $10 million allocated for contributions made to public school foundations and $10 million allocated for contributions to foundations that award scholarships to students to attend private schools of their choice.

The public school foundations accepting donations under the program would have been required to disburse 90 percent of the contributions annually for capital improvement projects approved by the local school board and for extracurricular activities. The scholarship foundations would be required to disburse 90 percent of their contributions for qualified educational expenses through scholarships.

Encouraged by Progress

“We should be encouraged by progress made this year on two very important school choice bills,” said Anna Varghese Marcucio, director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group based in Washington, DC. “Senator Stosch’s special-needs scholarship was approved by the Senate for the first time this year, which is a remarkable step forward. And Delegate Saxman’s tax credit scholarship bill was approved by the House of Delegates for the third time in as many years.

“The effort to change minds and create real educational reforms is gaining momentum, and we should continue to provide encouragement and support for the trailblazers in Virginia,” Marcucio continued.

The 2007 Regular Session of Virginia’s General Assembly adjourned February 24. Elections for the majority of state lawmakers take place this November.

Lori Drummer ([email protected]) is director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice.

For more information …

Serious Questions and Real Answers About SB 1419 (Tuition Assistance Grants for Students With Disabilities), by Christian N. Braunlich, published in February 2007 by the Center for Legislative Analysis of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #20906.