School Choice Wins in 2008; Unrestricted Eligibility in Georgia

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Washington Post is now reporting that the House Appropriations subcommittee will fund the DC voucher program for another year. People are saying that the future of the program doesn’t look good, because the subcommittee chairman is blustering about how much he doesn’t like it. But read that Post article carefully. He doesn’t say that the program will be killed next year. The Post reports that he says he’s funding the program for another year “to give District leaders a chance to restructure the program.” He is quoted as saying, “I expect that during the next year the District leaders will come forward with a firm plan for either rolling back the program or providing some alternative options.”

That sounds to me like a man who’s looking for a deal. The DC program is already loaded up with monster payoffs to the District’s patronage-bloated public school system. How hard is it to make those payoffs bigger? And maybe the program will have to accept some more politically motivated restrictions on participation, so that critics will have a trophy to hang on their wall.

Whether those tradeoffs are worth it for the school choice movement – there is a real cost, and not just in dollars, associated with them – is a question I leave for another day. And of course this is just the subcommittee; there could still be more trouble ahead. And maybe next year the critics will get a better offer from the unions than the deal they’re apparently angling to get on behalf of the DC patronage machine.

All I want to do is observe that the program’s chances of survival are now looking a lot better than they did yesterday.

As the political season winds to a close, let’s survey the results:

  • A new personal tax credit for private school tuition in Louisiana
  • A new tax-credit scholarship program in Georgia
  • A new voucher program in Louisiana
  • An expansion of Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program, including a $30 million increase in the cap; a bump up in the value of the scholarship and a linking of the scholarship value to state school spending (which always goes up); and a relaxation of the program’s unreasonably stringent accounting rules (which used to allow not one penny of carryover from year to year in the scholarship organizations’ accounts, and not one penny from eligible donations for administrative expenses).
  • A million-dollar funding increase and guaranteed future funding stream for Utah’s voucher program.
  • Preservation (tentatively) of the DC voucher program in a hostile Congress.

That’s three new programs, two expansions of existing programs and an upset victory in DC. Pretty good for a dead movement, wouldn’t you say?

By the way, how did accountability testing do this year? How many new programs? How many existing programs expanded?

How about instructional and curricular reforms? How’s the Massachussetts miracle holding up?

Anyone? . . . Anyone?

Some of these victories did come at a cost. The two programs in Louisiana are going to score poorly when measured against the gold standard of universal choice. The tax credit is limited to a very small amount of money, which means it offers a very small amount of choice. And the new voucher program is only offered to students who are in grades K-3, low-income, and enrolled in public schools (or entering kindergarten) in a chronically failing school district located in a highly populated parish – which currently means only New Orleans. Plus it’s limited by annual appropriations (currently $10 million). A new grade level will become eligible each year (4th grade next year, then 5th grade, etc.) and Baton Rouge may become eligible if its public schools continue to fail. But this is still an inadequate program. And we can also add the prospect of more restrictions in the DC program to the debit column.

But there was also a huge step forward for universal choice. Georgia’s new tax-credit scholarship program offers school choice for all students. It has no demographic restrictions at all. Any public school student can apply. The only limit is the $50 million program cap – and experience in other states pretty consistently shows that dollar caps rise as programs grow to meet them.

Georgia’s new program is basically the same as the Arizona program funded by individual donations, except that Georgia’s program also allows corproate donations. And that makes a big difference, because it greatly expands the pool of available funds – and hence the size of the program.

Come to think of it, Georgia’s program is the first tax-credit scholarship program to include corporate donations and not place demographic restrictions on who can participate. That’s a potentially powerful combination. It will be exciting to see whether Georgia ends up taking school choice to a whole new level.

One Response to School Choice Wins in 2008; Unrestricted Eligibility in Georgia

  1. […] 1) Expand the D.C. voucher program to make it a national model. After the Democrats took over Congress, most people thought the federally funded voucher program in Washington D.C. would be toast. But, lo and behold, the chairman of the relevant House subcommittee has given the program a one-year pass and seems to be angling for a deal. […]

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