According to the Associated Press (AP), at the heart of brewing political fights is whether public dollars should go to school vouchers to help make private schools more affordable. Opponents say they erode public schools by taking away money, violate the separation of church and state by giving public dollars to religiously based private schools, and are not a proven way to improve test scores. Even among supporters, there is dissension over whether vouchers should only be offered to low-income students on a limited basis or made available to anyone. There is also division among black and Hispanic leaders as to whether vouchers help or hurt kids in urban schools.
Many opponents also dislike scholarship programs that provide tax benefits to businesses or individuals for contributing to a fund to pay for private school. They say those programs undermine public schools by keeping tax revenues out of state treasuries, an important source of education dollars. Fights about using tax dollars to help make private schools more affordable are popping up around the country.
In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal recently won a victory with passage of legislation that expands a New Orleans voucher program statewide as part of broad changes to the state’s education system. Virginia lawmakers recently passed a bill backed by Governor Bob McDonnell allowing a tax credit for contributions to private school scholarship programs, and Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill expanding a similar program. Creating or expanding voucher or certain scholarship programs has been debated in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Ohio, New Jersey and elsewhere.
However, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have expanded a law passed in 2011 that created education savings accounts for parents of students with disabilities; the money could cover expenses such a private schooling, virtual programs or future college costs. The vetoed bill would have broadened eligibility to gifted students, children of military personnel, and students attending poor performing schools.
In 2011, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and other members of Congress successfully pushed for extending the District of Columbia’s voucher program as part of a last-minute deal to avert a federal government shutdown. Also that year, the school district in Douglas County, an affluent Denver suburb, adopted a program, now stalled under court order, that would allow up to 500 students to receive about $4,500 each in state money to use toward private school. Legal challenges to the Colorado district’s program and the Arizona one are pending at the appellate level.
Whether to offer school vouchers is one of the most contentious issues in education. According to the Center on Education Policy (CEP), which advocates for more effective public schools, those on both sides of the issue have won court victories and cite research to back up their cause. In recent years, the message among voucher supporters has shifted to one where it is not just about helping poor students, but empowering parents with choice valued and their satisfaction emphasized, said Alexandra Usher, a senior CEP research assistant.
Source: Associated Press, 4/9/12, By Kimberly Hefling
[Editor's Note: As reported by AP in Education Week on April 5, 2012, a number of Gov. Jindal's school reform measures gained final passage in the Louisiana House. Among those measures is legislation that will establish a statewide voucher program for private school tuition. Opponents charge that the voucher program, along with the other reforms, will siphon dollars from public schools and leave some of the neediest students in schools with fewer dollars to educate them. They complain private and parochial schools will not be held to the same accountability standards as public schools even though they will get public funding.]