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School choice: a progress report.

REFORMS THAT GIVE parents greater ability to choose their children's schools continue to expand across the nation. Just a decade ago, only a few school choice initiatives existed. Today, a dozen states and the District of Columbia have private school choice programs. Eight states--Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin--enacted new school choice programs or expanded existing ones.

As of 2006:

* Seven states--Arizona, Florida, Maine, Ohio, Vermont, Utah, and Wisconsin--and the District of Columbia have taxpayer-funded scholarships to help students attend private elementary or secondary schools of choice.

* Seven states--Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island--have tax credits or deductions for education expenses, including private school tuition, or incentives for contributions to scholarship programs.

* Forty states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws.

* Public school choice within or between districts is guaranteed in 15 states.

* Dual enrollment programs exist in 38 states. In 18 states, they are mandatory to allow qualifying high school students to attend college classes to receive higher education credits.

* Home schooling is legal in every state.

This progress follows a 15-year trend of reforms to give parents greater ability to choose their children's schools. In all, 10 states now have publicly funded scholarship programs to help students gain access to private school options. This year, an estimated 150,000 students will participate in publicly funded tuition scholarship programs across the U.S. In all, over 1,000,000 students are attending more than 3,600 charter schools. In addition, over 1,000,000 families have opted to forego publicly financed schools in order to educate their offspring at home.

The following is an overview of the measures enacted to expand or create K-12 private school choice options:

Arizona. During the 2006 legislative session, lawmakers created three new private K-12 school choice options. The first is a corporate scholarship tax credit that allows businesses to take a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for contributions to nonprofit organizations that fund private school scholarships for low-income students. The cap is $10,000,000 annually with a provision increasing it by 20% each year until 2010, when $21,000,000 will be available for tax credit contributions.

The second new option is a private school scholarship program for youngsters with disabilities--$2,500,000 will be available annually for qualifying special education students to attend private schools of choice.

The third initiative is a first-in-the-nation school voucher program providing $2,500,000 annually for tuition scholarships for kids who have been placed in foster care. Foster children face many challenges in life and the classroom. Research suggests that, compared with the general population, foster kids have lower scores on standardized tests and higher absenteeism, tardiness, truancy, and dropout rates. One main problem is instability: Youngsters in long-term foster care often experience multiple home placements, which can lead to school transfers. A voucher program can provide a more stable and higher-quality education.

Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush signed legislation to allow students who have been participating in the A+ Opportunity Scholarship program--which helps children from failing public schools--to receive scholarships through the state's existing corporate scholarship tax credit program. This change in the law was necessary because the Florida State Supreme Court ruled that the Opportunity Scholarship was unconstitutional. Without this legislation, more than 700 children would have been returned to failing schools, as defined under Florida law. The legislation includes accountability requirements for participating private schools.

Iowa. Under the Educational Opportunities Act, individuals can receive a 65% tax credit for donations to nonprofit school tuition organizations that fund private school scholarships. Students from families with incomes below 300% of the poverty line are eligible to receive scholarships. The total amount of donations that can qualify for the tax credit was capped at $2,500,000 in 2006 and $5,000,000 annually in subsequent years.

Ohio. Lawmakers enacted legislation to expand the number of students eligible for scholarships through the 2005 EdChoice program, which provides vouchers to students attending low-performing schools. By extending this opportunity to those attending public schools under "academic watch," this legislation increased the number of students eligible to receive scholarships from 20,000 to 50,000.

Pennsylvania. The Educational Improvement Tax Credit program was expanded, allowing corporations to receive partial tax credits for donations to organizations that fund private school scholarships or school improvement projects. The measure increased the tax credit limit from $44,000,000 to $54,000,000.

Rhode Island. A $1,000,000 corporate scholarship tax credit program was created to provide tuition scholarships to children from families with an income below 250% of the poverty fine.

Utah. Legislation expanded the Carson Smith Scholarship program, created in 2005, to provide tuition scholarships to children with special needs. The 2006 legislation increased the number of schools and students eligible to participate. According to the Alliance for School Choice, between 250-500 children received Carson Smith scholarships worth $5,700 each to attend private schools in 2005-06.

Wisconsin. Gov. Jim Doyle reached an agreement with leaders in the state legislature to increase the number of students who can participate in the landmark Milwaukee school voucher program from 15,000 to 22,500. The program, which was created in 1990-91, had limited the number of participating children to 15% of the school district's enrollment. In 2004-05, 15,035 students received vouchers. In addition to lifting the enrollment cap, the compromise legislation requires participating private schools to administer a national norm-referenced test in reading, mathematics, and science to voucher students in fourth, eighth, and 10th grades and submit the results for an academic evaluation.

Democrats and school choice

In addition to the successful efforts to enact school choice legislation across the country in 2006, state lawmakers in at least 29 states considered a total of 428 school choice initiatives, reports the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation. Moreover, there was an increasing willingness of Democratic lawmakers to embrace school choice initiatives. In Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Democratic governors signed legislation to create new school choice programs or expand existing ones. Similarly, a growing number of state Democratic legislators backed school choice measures. This trend suggests that more school choice programs could be enacted in future years.

One likely reason for the growing bipartisan support for school choice is the mounting empirical evidence that these programs work. Over the past 15 years, the growth of school choice has enabled researchers to study its impact on students, families, and school systems. Pupils participating in these initiatives have made academic gains when compared to their peers in public school. Importantly, public schools that face competition from choice programs also have shown improvement.

School choice clearly is popular among participating families. For example, when tuition scholarships have been made available to low-income families, the number of students seeking them has far surpassed availability. In 1998, for instance, the Children's Scholarship Fund offered 40,000 privately funded tuition scholarships to low-income students. More than 1,200,000 kids applied. In New York, Newark (N.J.), New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, nearly one out of three eligible students applied for scholarships. In Washington, D.C., nearly two applicants applied for each available slot offered through the Federal D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program.

Parents benefiting from school choice report higher levels of satisfaction, as indicated by numerous studies. For example, in 2003, the Manhattan Institute surveyed parents participating in Florida's McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities and found that 92.7% of them were satisfied or very satisfied with their children's schools, compared to just 32.7% of public school parents. The Department of Education's National Household Education Survey Program also reports that parents benefiting from school choice were more satisfied with their children's schools and more involved in their education.

Students in private school choice programs show increased academic achievement. Eight "random-assignment" studies of five school voucher and tuition scholarship programs compared the performance of students who were awarded scholarships to attend private school through a lottery system to that of those who entered the lottery but did not receive a scholarship and therefore remained in public school. All but one of these studies found that students using scholarships to attend private schools performed significantly better academically, and every study uncovered some positive academic effect.

In addition to helping participating children, school choice programs introduce competition into public school systems, which can drive public schools to improve performance or risk losing students. Studies have suggested that competition has a desirable system-wide effect, encouraging traditional public schools threatened with a loss of students to make better use of their resources.

Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby has studied the effects of competition on education in Arizona, Michigan, and Milwaukee and documented that it sparked improvement in public schools. In Arizona and Michigan, public schools facing competition from charter schools realized greater academic improvement than public schools that did not face competition. In a separate study of Milwaukee's choice program, Hoxby confirmed statistically significant evidence that competition spurs improvement. Hoxby has studied other types of school choice--such as interdistrict choice among public schools--and says that they lead to significant improvements. She maintains that, if every school in the nation were to face a high level of competition, from other districts and private schools, the productivity of U.S. schools, in terms of students' level of learning at a given level of spending would be 28% higher than it is now.

Despite growing evidence that these programs are working, efforts to expand parental choice in education still face many obstacles, particularly legal challenges that threaten to eliminate school choice options. In January 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's Opportunity Scholarship program, ruling that it violates the Florida constitution's "uniformity" clause that guarantees all students a "uniform, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools." If the Florida legislature had not provided an alternate funding source for participating pupils, the ruling would have ended a program that had been helping students enrolled in failing public schools to attend private schools since 1999.

The Florida ruling is likely to inspire future legal challenges. Clark Neily, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, an organization that litigates on behalf of school choice initiatives, states, "There's no question that this decision will embolden the school choice opponents to throw the uniformity argument against the wall and see if it sticks in other states."

School choice programs like Florida's have been the subject of numerous legal challenges in spite of a favorable verdict in the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2002, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland school voucher program in the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, ruling that the city's voucher program, which allowed students to use scholarships to attend religious private schools, did not violate the First Amendment. In addition, school choice programs have been defended successfully in Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin. However, the Supreme Court decision has not halted challenges based on state constitutions, which have different language and legal histories. State courts have issued rulings that have excluded religious private schools from school choice programs in Puerto Rico and Vermont. Lawmakers implementing school choice initiatives should be optimistic that well-designed programs have been upheld by state courts across the country, but the legal challenges to school choice can be expected to continue.

According to a Department of Education report in 2006, more than 2,112 public schools have missed state benchmarks for five or more years under No Child Left Behind. In some large school districts, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in persistently underperforming public schools. This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. A high percentage of public school students nationwide are achieving only minimal academic standards. On the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32% of eighth-graders from low-income households scored "below basic" on math, and 29% did the same for reading.

American taxpayers spend more than $440,000,000,000 annually on K-12 public education. Federal and state policymakers should give parents greater freedom to control the dollars and decisionmaking in their children's education.

Dan Lips is education analyst and Evan Feinberg is a research assistant in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:Education
Author:Lips, Dan; Feinberg, Evan
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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