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McDonnell urges OK for tax credits for school choice

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RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell headlined a rally in Capitol Square on Tuesday to advocate for a crucial element of his 2012 education agenda: a voucherlike program granting tax credits to companies that provide scholarships to low-income children.

Mr. McDonnell told a crowd that numbered in the hundreds that, overall, public and private schools in Virginia are good, but that providing opportunities for more choice would be a tremendous boon to education in the state.

"We've got to have greater choices," said Mr. McDonnell, who was given a yellow "National School Choice Week" scarf in the middle of his address. The Republican governor called the tax-credit legislation "a very simple and prudent step forward to give effective choice here in Virginia."

The event was hosted by a number of conservative groups, including the Family Foundation and Americans for Prosperity.

Mr. McDonnell said that when he first entered the House of Delegates 20 years ago, he couldn't even get a study conducted on a school-choice bill — illustrating how far the matter has come. It passed the House and failed to clear the Senate last year. But with effective control of the upper chamber, the GOP is more bullish this time around.

"I think this is the year where we're going to get this done," he said. "It's time that we do things in both the public and private sector to get results."

State Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II said it was time to end "government's virtual monopoly" on children.

"Let's put the people whose responsibility it is — the moral responsibility — to raise children in control of their children's education — and that's parents," he said.

The Republican also mocked critics of the legislation, pointing to the success of similar programs in places such as Wisconsin.

"Despite the dire predictions all around the country ... 'The sky is going to fall; the sky is going to fall' — in fact, the sky has gotten brighter. Opportunity grew, and schools that had to compete improved. Oh, my gosh, can you imagine that?"

Those in the crowd agreed.

Colleen Owens of Midlothian, Va., sent her eldest son to public schools but enrolled her younger two children in private school.

"We sacrificed to send them to private schools ... after volunteering in the public schools, I was kind of dismayed," she said. "I don't think that parents should have to be put in that position."

But Delegate Kenneth R. Plum, Fairfax Democrat, said that before there is any talk of credits to help children attend private school, the state needs to shore up funding for its public school system.

"We are witnessing a devolution of funding resources for public education," he said. "When we get public schools fully funded, come back and discuss it again, but right now I don't see taking money from public schools."

The Virginia House of Delegates also gave preliminary approval Tuesday to the so-called "Tebow bill" that would allow home-schooled children to participate in public-school sports. Mr. Cuccinelli, whose younger children are home-schooled, gave it a brief shout-out at the rally earlier in the day.

The bill has been one of the most closely watched in the General Assembly this year. Proponents argue that it's only fair to allow the children of taxpaying parents to participate, while opponents contend it would create an unlevel playing field.

"Nobody's asking for a quota," said Delegate Robert B. Bell, Albemarle Republican and sponsor of the measure. "Nobody's asking for reserve positions. All they're asking for is a chance to try out."

Mr. Plum said he appreciated the sincerity of those pushing the legislation, but was still wary about the fairness of the bill.

"I frankly don't know a way to make it workable and fair to all involved," he said.

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