Earlier I offered a post suggesting that 2010 might be the year of school choice, with five states to watch, Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Virginia and New Jersey. Maryland was added to the list after 13 Catholic schools closed in Baltimore, making the issue more prescient and bringing Democratic Governor O’Malley to change his stance and voice his support.
Well, the past few months have seen a lot of action, but unfortunately not a lot of victories.
Florida, thus far, has been the major exception. Florida saw, as expected, a resounding victory and major support for expanded school choice legislation. Florida raised the cap on the maximum scholarship amount and essentially wrote in legislation that erases the cap on the maximum participation in the state wide tax-credit program. The legislation is written such that as soon as demand for tax-credits scholarships get within a certain number of the maximum allowed by law, the number is automatically raised. This means, in effect, there is no cap on the number of tax-credit scholarships in Florida. Florida is now the state that distributes the largest number of publicly funded scholarships to private schools and by far the most dollars in private scholarship programs. Florida is also seeing incredible gains in student test scores, nearly erasing the achievement gap in reading in the past 10 years, a feat that has eluded educators and policy makers for generations. Florida has an incredibly strong coalition and total bi-partisan support for parental choice. Things will just continue to get better there.
That’s the good news, now for the bad…
Despite what appeared to be an important opportunity to shine a light on the vital role that Catholic schools play in urban communities and the significant public interest at making them more accessible through parental choice programs, the Maryland tax-credit legislation, BOAST, died in the House this April.
In May, the exciting prospects of a voucher bill passing in Chicago, as I discussed here, here, and here suffered a major set-back. The Chicago Trib covered the sad story. Though the bill passed in the Senate – a rather incredible feat – it too died in the Democratically controlled House. But as the Miracle Man (played by Billy Crystal) in the Princess Bride says, its “only mostly dead, which is not all dead.” Its still technically alive, but it looks like it will take a miracle to bring it back to life. The good news is that School Choice Illinois has reinvented itself with some strong new talent that I recently had the pleasure of meeting. The big picture here is that this is a moral victory of sorts. It means that school choice in Illinois is now that much closer to being within grasp. If an effective coalition can be built with strong grass-roots support then Senator Meeks will not be a voice in the wilderness crying out for school choice but a leader with clear and strong support among various actors. Without this kind of base, there is no consequence for those that do not support choice, while those that do support choice risk incurring the wrath of the teacher’s unions or losing their link to the single largest special interest source of political funding in America. We need to educate the community and religious leaders that represent the parents and communities that stand to gain so much from these programs.
That leaves Indiana, Virginia and New Jersey, as states that still have good possibilities for wins. I’ll come back with updates on these three states in my next post.