- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Vouchers for private schools. Vouchers for religious schools. Vouchers for special education. Tax credits. Money for charter schools.

Public funding measures are moving the school-choice movement into unconventional territory in statehouses from Washington to Wisconsin to right here in Maryland. In short, parents and voters are pushing the right buttons, and lawmakers and governors are trying to beat their buzzers.

Take Wisconsin. Just last week, Gov. Scott Walker, who couldn’t gain traction among conservatives and Republicans in the race for the White House, signed the Special Needs Scholarship legislation, one day after he endorsed conservative Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The state law allows a child with a disability to receive funds to attend a private school at any time during a school year. The law was necessary because parents of special-needs children felt stymied.

Montana is another state laboratory worth watching because the courts there ruled the Department of Revenue could not block scholarship tax credits from being used for religious schools. Current law allows individual scholarship donors to religious schools to receive up to $150 in tax credits. Montana’s revenue department tried to make religious donations ineligible. Mothers who kids attend a Christian school sued — and won.

Meanwhile, Mississippi parents and school-choice advocates hit a trifecta last week, when the state House approved legislation passed by the Senate that would allow children to attend a charter school that is not in their home district. Then, the Senate passed a House bill to grant vouchers to students with special needs. Next, the Senate unanimously passed school-choice legislation that would ensure that students with dyslexia in Grades 1 through 6 continue to receive vouchers to cover the costs of therapy, a reasonable $5,000. That program was set to sunset in June.

In Maryland, my Maryland — well, put Annapolis on the honor roll.

The state has approved a measure for the state’s first K — 12 scholarship program and bills that would make Maryland the 25th state to allow private school choice and the 30th state to allow education choice. Slow learners in a blue state, Maryland lawmakers didn’t even allow charter schools until 2003. Then, the election of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in 2014 helped to change the dynamics of the debate.

A school-choicer himself, Mr. Hogan named Keiffer Mitchell as a senior adviser — a smart move, as Mr. Mitchell is not only a Democrat and former state officeholder, but a member of one of Baltimore’s, the state’s and the Democratic Party’s most powerful political families. With bipartisan support and overcoming years of objections from teachers unions, Maryland lawmakers finally blessed a publicly funded voucher program.

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, a Democrat who currently serves as president of the University of Baltimore, called vouchers a “life-saver.” And indeed they are for children stuck in academically stagnant public schools.

Collectively, all the above-mentioned game-changers mean school choice is gaining traction amid electorates nationwide, and that is a very promising thing.

Finally, just consider what happened recently in the state of Washington.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who was booted out of Congress during the 1994 Republican Revolution, could sense the political winds had shifted. He knew because state voters, after rejecting establishing charter schools on three separate occasions, switched and sided with school choice in 2012. But the state’s biggest teachers union, which has endorsed the Democrat’s 2016 re-election bid, was demanding a veto.

The result: The governor announced last week he would let a bill protecting charters schools in the state become law, even though he could not bring himself to actually sign the bill. “Despite my deep reservations about the weakness of the taxpayer accountability provisions, I will not close schools,” Mr. Inslee wrote.

It was reportedly the first time in more than three decades that a bill became law in Washington state without the governor’s signature. Even so, score another victory for the school-choice movement.

The war, however, continues as voters whittle away at the presidential race and the school-choice movement breaks through more barriers.

Keep on pushing.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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