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Citing legislative and court victories around the country, the Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education says movement is gathering momentum
BY John Attarian
According to the Virgil Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education, 1997 was a banner year for advancing the cause of school choice. In fact, the organization describes it as “probably [their] most fruitful year.”
Named for Jesuit Father Virgil Blum (1913-1990), the Blum Center, founded in 1992 by Dr. Quentin Quade, collects, synthesizes, and disseminates information on school choice. Father Blum founded the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and the Citizens for Educational Freedom, and was renowned as a pioneer in the movement for parental choice in educational financing.
Two states saw “definitive legislative successes” in giving parents more educational freedom this year. Arizona's Gov. Fife Symington signed a bill April 7 that allows donors to private and religious school tuition organizations to receive tax credits of up to $500, and also applies the credits for up to $200 for activity fees at public schools. The law goes into effect this month.
On June 26, Minnesota's legislature passed a bill providing limited expansion of school choice to all Minnesota parents. It extends the state's tax deduction for educational expenses, already covering tuition, fees, textbooks, instructional materials, and transport costs, to include personal computer, tutoring, and summer school and camp costs. It also increases the deduction from $650 to $1,625 per child for grades K-6 and from $1,000 to $2,500 for grades 7-12. Additionally, the bill provides for a refundable tax credit of $1,000 per child (maximum of $2,000 per family) for families with incomes below $33,500, which may be used for all the deductible expenses except tuition.
With these laws, five states— Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin—have now “completed the legislative enactment of school choice.” Meanwhile, the Illinois legislature passed a bill allowing families who have spent at least $250 on public, private, or parochial school expenses, to claim one-fourth of the expenses in a refundable tax credit of up to $500 per family. So far, Gov. Jim Edgar has not indicated whether or not he will sign the bill.
Also, a 1997 Iowa state budget provision that would have doubled Iowa's tax credit for private school tuition from $100 to $200 remains eligible for debate this year. In Florida, a bill creating pilot school choice scholarships in specified counties won approval by the legislature's education committees. Legislation has been drafted in New Hampshire to let school districts vote to reimburse parents for public, private, parochial, and home schooling tuition costs.
Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico announced a broad educational reform program on Nov. 5, including school choice, saying he wants to “let the [educational] money follow the child.” While details remain pending, his goal is comprehensive school choice for all the state's children by 2002, through scholarships phased in over five years, which could be used at any school—public, private, or parochial. He expects the school choice reform to achieve better educational standards, greater accountability, and competition among schools. “With this initiative, Gov. Johnson joins the ranks of gubernatorial leaders of the school choice effort such as Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, Arne Carlson of Minnesota, and George Voinovich of Ohio,” according to Blum Center literature.
In addition, 1997 saw school choice legislation introduced in several states. California's Gov. Pete Wilson reintroduced a voucher bill that would let students in poorly performing public schools use “opportunity scholarships” at private schools. A similar bill, involving $5,500 scholarships, was sponsored in the Pennsylvania House. A bill was introduced in Delaware creating annual state scholarships, with a maximum value of $2,700, to defray private school tuition expenses.
Rep. Kay O'Connor of Kansas introduced a bill that the Blum Center deems “a model for school choice advocates.” O'Connor proposes a statewide program, phased in over six years, which would allow all K-12 students to attend the public, private, or parochial school of their choice, using phased-in vouchers rising in the sixth year to 100% of the state's per-pupil expense for grades 9-12 students.
In Maryland, a bill was introduced that would provide a tuition tax credit of up to $1,000 for private and parochial schools. New York saw a bill introduced to phase in tuition vouchers over three years, beginning with the poorest students. A bill was introduced in Utah providing state income tax credits of up to $2,000 per year per child for students in nonpublic schools.
Apart from a committee hearing in Maryland, no action was taken on any of these bills. But in Texas, a bill that would have given students in poorly performing public schools tuition vouchers for use at private or parochial schools made it through the education committees of both houses (without the choice aspect in the Senate). The Blum Center argues that this reflects a growing support for school choice in Texas.
In Colorado, papers have been filed for a 1998 ballot initiative to let Colorado citizens vote on creating a comprehensive voucher system. A Detroit group plans to gather signatures to put a constitutional amendment allowing use of tax money for private school tuition on Michigan's 1998 ballot.
There were some state-level legislative defeats. Louisiana's Senate education committee defeated a proposal for vouchers for non-public schools. Although the Missouri Senate approved a tax bill amendment that would have given tax deductions to parents with children in nonpublic high schools, a House-Senate conference later dropped it.
While educational freedom suffered setbacks in state-level court actions, resistance was strong, and the state supreme courts will be reviewing the cases. Cleveland's Scholarship Program was ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio District Court of Appeals, as providing “direct and substantial non-neutral government aid to sectarian schools,” but the case reached Ohio's Supreme Court, which decided unanimously in July to let the program continue in the 1997-98 school year pending their decision on the case's merits.
Superior Court Judge Alden Byron of Rutland County, Vt., ruled that it is unconstitutional for the Chittenden school district to cover tuition costs for children attending religious schools in the area. The Chittenden school board appealed the case to the Vermont Supreme Court. In Wisconsin, Dane County Circuit Judge Paul Higginbotham ruled that the state constitution forbids expanding Milwaukee's Parental Choice Program to religious schools. Although the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the decision, the dissenting opinion was vigorous, and Wisconsin's Supreme Court has agreed to review the case.
In 1997, Congress considered, but didn't pass, two bills to promote educational freedom nationally. One, the “Helping Empower Low-Income Parents” (HELP) bill, would have allowed school districts, with their state's approval, to use Title VI omnibus block grant money to fund vouchers for low-income students, usable at any public or nonpublic school. The other, Sen. Paul Coverdell's “A+ Education Savings Account” bill, would have let families put up to $2,500 after-tax dollars a year into a savings account earning tax-free interest for K-12 education expenses, including nonpublic school tuition. Undaunted by a successful filibuster, Coverdell said that “come February 1998, this bill will be back before us, and we will ultimately secure passage of it.”
All in all, the Blum Center observed, 1997's developments “provide a clear impression of gathering momentum helping the process of parental liberation.”
John Attarian writes from Ann Arbor, Mich.