ENLOW: School Choice: Alive and well

More states join as tax credits and vouchers mean large savings

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In 1897, when Mark Twain was living in a dingy London apartment, a New York paper mistakenly published an article of his imminent demise. Twain famously quipped in response, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

The same could be said to be true for myriad news reports announcing the death of school vouchers or their lack of relevance in the modern education reform debate.

Since the 2007 defeat of a Utah voucher referendum, opponents have written the obituary on Milton Friedman’s vision of educational freedom. As Cynthia Brown from the Center for American Progress stated, “The notion of vouchers for all kids is almost dead.”

If vouchers aren’t being pronounced dead, then some pundits argue they have no relevance. As Pema Levy said in the AmericanProspect, “Charter schools and teacher accountability have now replaced vouchers as the new cause celebre.”

But as this year is proving, both of these lines of attack are wrong. From Alaska to Florida, lawmakers are embracing voucher and tax-credit programs in record numbers. Unfortunately for those who already bought the burial plot, we will see greater expansion of existing programs and enactment of new choice programs than at any time in history.

In all, there have been 52 voucher and tax-credit proposals offered in 36 states and localities. The vast majority of the proposals extend choice into the middle class and beyond.

Among the more serious proposals emerging this year:

c Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is seeking to expand the Milwaukee school voucher program from one that serves only low-income students to one serving all students attending city schools.

c The Oklahoma legislature has passed a tax-credit program that will allow nonprofit organizations to give scholarships to families earning up to 300 percent of income eligible for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program.

c Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has a bill awaiting his signature to expand the state’s tax credit significantly by marrying the annual increase in a cap on vouchers with the Consumer Price Index.

c Pennsylvania Democrats are busting down the door with a variety of school-choice plans, including a voucher program for low-income students, which would later expand to middle-income students along with a more than doubling of the size of that state’s tax-credit program.

c And the big one - Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is poised to sign House Bill 1003, which will create the most expansive voucher program in the nation. Any Indiana child who comes from a family whose income does not exceed 150 percent of income eligible for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program will be eligible to receive a scholarship to attend any accredited private school. By the end of the third year, about 60 percent of the state’s entire student enrollment will be eligible to receive a voucher.

These proposals are being embraced not just in traditional “red” states but in heavily unionized states where teachers’ groups have had enormous influence, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Even a local school board in Colorado has adopted a school voucher program.

Surely, part of the reason for this explosion is fiscal reality. With so many states in financial crisis, those who follow education reform have long known that Friedman’s vision of educational choice is the most effective path toward fiscal sanity and security. As parents get more choices, public schools get more money per pupil.

For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a Milwaukee voucher is worth $6,422, while the school district spends $13,229 per child. Everyone from Tea Partyers to Democrats can see that when it costs less to give a student a private-school voucher than to educate him in a traditional public school, everyone wins.

Taxpayers and their elected representatives have had enough of writing checks for education - or anything else in government - without a sufficient return on their investment. As the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation reported this winter, the per-student cost to fund public schools has more than doubled during the past 40 years while academic achievement has remained flat. And all the while, other nations have surpassed the United States in student performance.

When the evidence is strong and the logic stronger, there must be a reason that a few still don’t support the idea of school choice for all. Twain must have had it right again when he quipped, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

Robert Enlow is president of the Foundation for Educational Choice, founded by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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