- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

A headline on an opinion column in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times recently sounded an alarm sure to resonate with worried opponents of school vouchers, especially those in the Deep South: "Just imagine vouchers, growing wild like kudzu."
Yikes. Kudzu is a vine so fast-growing in the southeastern U.S.A. since its introduction from Japan in 1876 that Georgians close their windows at night just to keep it out of their homes, according to poet James Dickey. Never mind that Southern entrepreneurs have found ways to make baskets, blossom jelly, hay, and even quiche from kudzu. Many deem it a ubiquitous pest.
The Times column took a dim view of the spread of vouchers in Florida beginning with Gov. Jeb Bush's A-Plus program that offers publicly financed scholarships to students in failing public schools. Since A-Plus started in the late 1990s, Florida has added the popular McKay Scholarship for students classified as learning disabled, and also a corporate tax credit for donations to K-12 private scholarships.
And now come new proposals by Florida's lawmakers that cause the columnist to worry about even greater voucher proliferation: Vouchers for children of military personnel. Raising the lid on corporate tax credits from the current $50 million to $100 million. And even one bill to authorize $3,500 vouchers for any K-12 families who want them.
Those who see vouchers as kudzu should beware. This vine is no longer confined to the Deep South. It's gone way beyond to the west and north:
Colorado's legislature recently passed a bill that will allow students in a dozen poorly performing districts to use vouchers of up to $6,000 to transfer to private schools of their choice. Gov. Bill Owens, a strong supporter of school choice, says he looks forward to signing the measure into law.
Colorado will become the first state to adopt vouchers since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Zelman decision of June 2002 upholding the constitutionality of the Ohio scholarship program in Cleveland. And Texas and Louisiana may be close behind.
Then there's the nation's capital. The president of the Washington, D.C. Board of Education, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, stunned hard-core voucher opponents recently when she reversed her opposition and said she would be willing under certain conditions to support President Bush's proposal for a pilot voucher program for children in poorly performing DC public schools.
But school choice is not something that's just greened up. As Krista Kafer of the Heritage Foundation notes in the May issue of School Reform News, "Since 1987, the number of states providing publicly funded vouchers or tax incentives rose from two (Maine and Vermont) to 10 (Maine, Vermont, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Arizona, Pennsylvania)."
In addition, the number of charter schools that offer families and teachers choice within the public system is now approaching 3,000. Meanwhile, in the form of choice most removed from government control, almost 2 million American children now are being home-schooled. Two decades ago, only a few thousand were.
Kudzu may be a word to describe this growth in somewhat unpleasant terms. But for a child able to use public funds to attend a good school for the first time in his or her young life, there is another word that applies: Freedom.
Like kudzu, it spreads and overruns everything. However, unlike kudzu, once people have it, they never want to give it up. In fact, they tend to want more.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington.



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