- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008

About 150,000 children in 13 states and the District of Columbia are attending private schools under publicly funded school-choice programs, according to a report from the Heritage Foundation.

The school choice and voucher effort has had mixed success nationwide, however. At least three states turned back such proposals last year, the Jan. 31 report noted.

“A growing number of American students are benefiting from school choice policies,” wrote the study’s author, Dan Lips, an education analyst at the Heritage Foundation. At the same time, rejection of private-school voucher programs in Ohio, Utah and Louisiana “highlight the continuing political resistance to policies that give families greater school choice options.”

Georgia was the latest state to add a private-school choice initiative, with a program created last year for children with special needs. Proposals to enact or expand school choice or voucher programs were introduced in at least 40 state legislatures last year, according to the report.

At the federal level, President Bush continues to champion the idea of school choice and vouchers. A $300 million proposal in his 2009 budget would create a program called Pell Grants for Kids, allowing parents whose children attend poorly performing public schools to send them to private schools or to better public schools outside their districts.

“With each passing year, kids and families attend schools that are labeled as underperforming, chronically underperforming,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said while defending the proposal. “I think our responsibility is to provide lifelines to kids who are in those schools.”

She said the program would apply to children in schools that show chronic low performance under the standards set in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Lips said the proposal is unlikely to get much support or attention from the Democrat-controlled Congress. Democrats generally oppose voucher and school-choice programs.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, criticized Mr. Bush’s proposal, saying the president’s budget “once again siphons scarce resources from our public schools to create a new voucher program.”

Jane Hannaway, director of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute, said, “I think many people are worried about diverting resources away from already-strapped public schools. I think that’s a fundamental concern.”

She said other issues include whether enough high-quality charter and private schools will be available to these children, and whether parents will be given adequate information about school options.

School choice has been one of Mr. Bush’s top priorities, although the success of such initiatives has been mixed. The 2003 federally funded D.C. school-choice program — which enrolls about 1,900 students from low-income families — continues to be his education reform legacy, Mr. Lips said.

At the state level, three private-school voucher programs enacted last year ultimately failed. Utah’s proposal was repealed by voter referendum by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent. The governors of Louisiana and Ohio vetoed their states’ proposals, according to the report.

Joe Conn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the Utah example in particular is “a stinging defeat” for voucher proponents but that he expects more state voucher programs to be proposed this year.

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