School Choice Sees 'Revolution' as Programs Gain Support

Wednesday, 19 Feb 2014 02:28 PM

By Andrea Billups

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School choice programs are enjoying a rebirth of interest across the nation as states embrace measures including tax credits, scholarships, voucher programs, and other alternative educational initiatives.

Republican Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana is leading the newly formed Congressional School Choice Caucus, a group that will try to improve student achievement by focusing on free-market reforms.

"No child should be forced to go to a school where they won't have a meaningful chance to learn," Messer said in announcing the initiative. "That's why school choice matters. Whether that means open enrollment, expanding charter school options, or more access to virtual classrooms, empowering parents with a choice will give their children a greater chance for success."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, offered a sharply worded speech at the Brookings Institution in January, pledging to work hard to break what he described as a "status quo" lock on public education reform.

"America is in the midst of an education revolution, with a shift towards more choice for families," Cantor said at Brookings' Brown Center for Education Policy, which released its latest Education Choice and Competition Index, an in-depth study of how choice programs are working around the nation.

"Since the mid-1960s, the federal government has spent billions of dollars to improve schools in low-income areas, with little to no effect," Cantor said. "School choice programs are experiencing this kind of expansion for one very simple reason: they work. They deliver real and measurable results."

Teacher unions and some public education supporters argue that efforts like school vouchers take money from public schools and turn it over to private operators, but such opposition has dimmed over the past decade as more states are demanding not only flexibility but higher learning results with tighter budgets.

"The real battles are in the states," said Matt Frendewey, national communications director at the Washington-based American Federation for Children, who noted a resurgence of the choice movement,

"If you look over time historically, in the last several years, there has been a larger expansion than probably in the last 20," Frendewey told Newsmax.

The momentum began in 2011, and in the last three years, more state lawmakers and choice proponents have pushed for legislation to expand school choice.

Republican Rep Matt Salmon of Arizona has introduced the School Choice Education Savings Account Act, which would allow parents to use 529 tax savings accounts, now used mostly for college, on primary and secondary schooling as well.

In Louisiana, a state-funded voucher program continues to grow — despite intervention from the U.S. Justice Department, which charged a school choice initiative was serving to resegregate schools. The program enrolled about 6,800 mostly minority students who have been allowed to transfer from D- and F-rated schools to private schools in the state at an average cost of $5,200 annually.

In Indiana, more than 20,000 students were enrolled last fall in the state's three-year-old Choice Scholarship Program after the state's Republican governor, Mike Pence, expanded the program.

School Choice Indiana President Betsy Wiley told Newsmax she is enthusiastic about the program's growth, noting that about 315 of the state's private schools — secular and religious — are participating, enabling low- and middle-income students to receive scholarships of up to $4,700 to attend participating schools.

Indiana residents also see a tax benefit in contributing to the scholarship program. A $1,000 donation offers them a $500 tax credit. The program also allows for school loyalty: supporters may direct their funds to the schools of their choice, supporting alma maters or their own church-run schools directly.

"It's an exciting time," Wiley said of the choice movement. "I think what you are seeing is that it's getting stronger, not going away."

At Brookings, the ECCI index enables those interested in school choice to review a report card on K-12 conditions at 107 school districts around the nation, based on 13 criteria.

The Brookings study notes that of the nation's K-12 education population, about 5 percent attend charter schools, which are now allowed in 42 states.

Twelve states offer some type of public subsidy or voucher allowing parents to select a private school, while some states allow tax-credit scholarships, individual tax deductions, and education savings accounts for programs in what Brookings describes as a choice "revolution."

The Brookings research provides an assessment on what choice programs are doing right and wrong.

Leading the list at No. 1 in the school choice index was New Orleans' Recovery School District, which earned an A grade, followed by New York City Public Schools, which earned an A-minus. Rounding out the top 10 were Orleans Parish in Louisiana, Houston, Denver, Minneapolis, Washington, San Diego, Tucson, and Chicago.

"The present monopoly in which government-run school districts are the sole providers of publicly funded K-12 education has not succeeded in providing a good-enough education for the children of disadvantaged families for them to be economically self-sufficient and socially mobile," the report notes.

"Nor has it maximized positive externalities by producing a U.S. population with the world-leading skills and knowledge that are likely prerequisites for our future economic strength. These failures are compounded by the high costs of our education system relative to other developed countries."

While Republicans have spearheaded many choice programs over the last decade, ongoing interest appears to be bipartisan. The AFC noted that of all school choice programs enacted in the last five years, more than half were "either passed by Democratic legislatures or signed by Democratic governors."

As support rises, from parents and politicians alike, work remains in Washington on the latest public education legislation.

While the House has passed reforms to the "No Child Left Behind" law, the Senate has yet to move on the Student Success Act (H.R. 5), which would eliminate several federal mandates and give states more flexibility on their policies, restoring "local control," its sponsors say.

Cantor, who has traveled the country to visit many choice programs, said in his Brookings address:

"Our committees in the House will remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure no one from the government stands in the schoolhouse door between any child and a good education."

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