When proponents of school choice sit down to their Thanksgiving feasts later this month, they will have a long list of 2002 happenings for which to be thankful. Not least among their blessings is the outcome of the November 5 elections.
Jeb Bush’s landslide re-election as Governor of Florida secures what has become School Choice Central in the never-ending experiment that is American federalism. Arizona is the only other state that comes close to matching Florida in the array of public/private education choices offered families.
In addition, the shift of power in the Senate means that Senator Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, a leading advocate of portability (public money following a child to a school of choice), is likely to take over as Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. The House Education Committee is already headed by a staunch supporter of parental choice – Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Together Gregg and Boehner could make a difference in arguing that federally aided programs such as the mammoth Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – currently up for reauthorization – should allow for increased consumer choice.
Bolstering school-choice advocacy in the Senate will be Jim Talent, the Senator-elect from Missouri. As a four-term member of the House, Talent served on the Education Committee and contended that parental choice was vital to kick-starting school reform.
On the House side, two significant reinforcements for the cause of choice at the level of national policy are Representatives-Elect Trent Franks, who played a key role as a state legislator in passage of Arizona’s pioneering scholarship tax credit, and Tom Feeney, who as Speaker of Florida’s House filed the state’s first full-fledged voucher bill in 1990.
Jeb Bush’s signature A-Plus reform offers a voucher to students stuck in chronically failing public schools. Had his foes (notably, the anti-choice teacher unions) succeeded in defeating Bush at the polls, that voucher innovation could have been imperiled. However, an even larger Florida voucher program, the McKay Scholarship — which in fact has become the largest school-choice program in the nation in just four years — likely would have survived.
Named for its chief advocate, the president of the Florida Senate, McKays are vouchers for children who have been labeled as learning disabled and fitted with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Should parents be dissatisfied for any reason with how their child’s IEP is being implemented, they may use their subsidy in the form of a McKay Scholarship to transfer their children to a private school or a different public school. McKay Scholarships have soared from just 2 in a 1999 pilot to more than 8,000 last year. Whether because of the program’s popularity or the unstated relief of public school officials to be bidding farewell to supposedly hard-to-teach students, the teacher unions have not filed lawsuits to challenge this kind of voucher.
With the altered political balance in Washington, the McKay voucher now could become a model for reforming IDEA nationally using the liberating principle of school choice.
Adding to its status as School Choice Central, Florida also has a corporate tax credit rewarding contributions to private K-12 scholarships, and a large number of public charter schools. However, the gains for school choice in 2002 go far beyond what’s happening in one state or the returns from one election.
During 2002, three major policy movements converged into a force suggesting nothing less than the birth of a new paradigm for U.S. elementary and secondary education:
(1) Philadelphia’s turning over of failing private schools to private managers on an unprecedented scale this fall,
(2) the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 27 ruling in the Zelman case from Cleveland that nothing in the U.S. Constitution bars parents from choosing to use publicly funded vouchers to send their children to religious schools, and
(3) the initial impact on public-school districts of the parental-choice provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush on January 8.
The common thread is that government is becoming less of a monopoly provider of education and more of a purchaser of educational services that enjoy consumer confidence and have track records of success. This approach has wide acceptance in Western Europe, where government grants often support parents’ choices of public or private schools.
As recently as a few years ago, the U.S was considered to have a state-dominated educational system that shunned virtually all choice and competition. However, when a German policy group, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, held an international conference on choice this October, it focused on fast-growing gains in school choice in America as an inspiration for German reformers.
Soon America may be School Choice Central.
—Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.
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