OK, as promised, an update on New Jersey, Indiana and Virginia, the three states that appear to have the best chances of advancing school choice efforts in the short term.
First, Indiana, which is one of the newest states to gain school choice in the form of a modest scholarship tax-credit program. Currently the tax-credit is granted for 50% of donations on State tax liability for corporations or individuals and the total cap for the program is at $2.5 million in tax-credits, which leverage $5 million in scholarship funds. In other words, it is currently a very modest program. The total scholarship level is very small and the 50% tax-credit is weak compared to the 80% in Pennsylvania or the 100% in Florida and Arizona. But it appears that politically, things in Indiana are looking good. It is likely that Republicans will win back a majority in both houses at the mid-term and that Governor Mitch Daniels is rearing to go for a big push on education reform. This could result in a major expansion to the program or a second parental choice program, like vouchers for students with disabilities.
The biggest barrier to expansion is that the tax-credit program has been slow in getting started. It took a while to get the Scholarship organizations up and running and approved by the State. This resulted in a very small proportion of the total tax-credits being used in 2010, the first year of the program. To lawmakers, this suggests that the program wasn’t very popular. This will need to change quickly if law-makers are to be convinced that parental choice is working and in high demand with Indiana parents. Still, there is great opportunity here, so keep your eye out early in 2011 for some action.
Next, New Jersey. New Jersey has the chance of becoming the newest parental choice state in the union. There is a bill moving now that has already made it out of a Senate committee and is attracting serious debate. It is likely that we may see action in the next month or so. Though New Jersey is typically a very strong union state with large and powerful teachers unions, the good people there have begun to get fed up. When the Camden Public School District spends $25,000 per child, yes $25,000!!!, with very little to show for this absurd level of expense, tax-payers just don’t believe that teachers being underpaid is the root of weak performance in public schools. It is worth noting that Catholic elementary schools in Camden list tuition at $3,500, but usually the parents only pay $1,000 while the remainder is supported by the parish and donations.
Parents want more options and are ready for change. Meanwhile, Catholic schools in NJ are continuing to shut their doors left and right, meaning those options are quickly disappearing. The good news here is that NJ has a very strong Mayor in Chris Christie, and some strong reform oriented leaders in the Education office in x and y, that will push hard for this needed reform. The bad news is that Christie has already burnt up some political capital with some hard decisions on budget cuts and embattled the unions. This will be an interesting fight, and potentially a pretty rough one. I’m hopeful.
Finally, Virginia. Virginia seemed very promising with the election of a pro school choice Mayor in Bob McDonald and the appointment of a reform oriented Secretary of Education. In January and February a scholarship tax-credit bill passed the House only to die in a Senate committee. I haven’t seen or heard anything else from Virginia since then and the School Choice Virginia web-site and blog appears to have gone dormant. That’s about all I know about Virginia, but I’ll check with friends to try to learn more. If anyone has any information, please add a comment and let us know.
Also, please comment about any school choice related action going on in your state!