Article published in Colorado Springs Gazette
School vouchers went down heavily as election-day propositions in California and Michigan last November. Although fundamental reform is always a tough sell as a stark yes or no on a ballot, the school-choice movement appeared to have collapsed like a bride’s soufflŽ.
But much to the chagrin of K-12 education monopolists, parental choice is rising again and with renewed vigor. While Washington will debate choice’s place in education reform this spring, the most interesting action is occurring at the local level.
Case in point: In Colorado Springs, developer Steve Schuck is offering to pay private-school tuition for three years to any students at a low-performing Colorado Springs elementary school who meet the federal poverty criterion. Alternatively, parents may use Schuck’s help to pay for tutors or other supplementary services if they wish to stay with the public school. The philanthropist hopes to make the point that competition will force government-run schools to improve.
“The purpose,” he says, “is to empower parents to make whatever decisions are best for their children.”
Meanwhile, recent results from the field in Florida have infused the national voucher movement with new life.
Governor Jeb Bush shepherded to legislative passage in 1999 an A-Plus education-reform plan that uses the voucher – a tax-funded scholarship that parents may use to pay tuition — as the main agent of change. The state assigns each public school a grade from A to F based on test results. If a school flunks twice in a four-year period, its students can receive $3,400 vouchers to go to private school.
After the second round of testing in 1999, 76 Florida schools had gotten an initial F and thus faced the loss of students to vouchers if they flunked again in the 2000 testing. But, remarkably, all 76 pulled their scores up to passing. Dr. Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute has just concluded a study that documents striking gains in pupil achievement in those voucher-threatened schools. Their gains were more than twice those recorded by other public schools.
These results, noted Dr. Greene, are “particularly relevant because of the similarities between the Florida A-Plus choice and accountability system and the education initiatives proposed by President George W. Bush.” The President wants to convert federal Title I aid to stipends that families stuck in chronically failing schools could use to pursue other options, such as tutoring or private education.
Vouchers are controversial on Capitol Hill. But hopes for expanded school choice do not hinge exclusively on them.
New bills appear almost daily to provide federal tax credits ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 per child for the parental exercise of school choice. Supporters of tax breaks to advance school choice range from Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey to Texas Representative Ron Paul, the 1988 Libertarian Party candidate for President.
Paul has introduced one bill that would give parents an annual federal tax credit up to $3,000 per child for expenses incurred in K-12 public, private, or home-based schools, and a second bill that would provide a $3,000 credit for charitable donations to schools of choice.
Like the baseball clubs currently training in Florida and Arizona, school choice is coming back this spring with fresh strength and optimism.
Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.
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