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In March I suggested that 2010 might be the year of school choice.  As we prepare to usher in 2011, its a good time to reflect back on what’s happened and what we can hope for and expect for the new year.

The states that seemed hopeful in 2010 were: Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Virginia, New Jersey, and Maryland.

There was action in Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.  Florida and Oklahoma were the only significant successes.  Florida represents an important victory in the fourth largest state in the union.  With strong bi-partisan support and a huge rally this year, Florida has raised the scholarship allocation and  implemented a floating cap on the number of vouchers allowed, so that as soon as applications come close to the cap, it automatically goes up.  So essentially, there is no cap.  Oklahoma has followed the Florida model in passing a special needs voucher bill, which can likely be the gateway into broader choice efforts.

The rest of the story of 2010 was not so rosy.  Though Illinois and Maryland both had parental choice bills pass the Senate, both died in the House.  This is a partial victory, in that it showed choice is politically viable and raised awareness of the issue.  It is likely that efforts will continue in these states.

Virginia did not introduce a bill, and though New Jersey was pushing for one, Governor Christie stood firm against a watered down version, though didn’t have the votes to get the stronger bill he wanted.

Pennsylvania had a significant set back with a budget reduction to their tuition tax-credit program, but they are fighting to get the funding levels back up and are hopeful to be able to do so in the near future.

So how about 2011?  I’m hopeful.

The States to watch include Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And let’s not forget D.C.

Colorado: There has been a bubbling up of interest in Douglas county, a suburban area with good public schools, not the norm for a choice experiment.  But there is philosophical support for choice, and supporters think it could plant the seed in Colorado.  Here is a nice article from the Cato Institute.

Florida: As I noted in a recent post, Florida is powering ahead as the biggest and best school choice state in the country.  Increasingly seen as a national model of effective education policy, Florida is poised to continue its path as the leader in providing  educational options to its residents.

Indiana: Also mentioned in a recent post, Indiana is looking VERY GOOD to make major gains in its push for school choice.  Heavily influenced by the successes of Florida and with a perfect political climate to make major changes, Governor Daniels is ready to leave his legacy in Indiana and show what he could do as a Presidential contender.

Illinois: I think we are in for a long fight in Chicago.  But Senator Meeks, who introduced and fought for the bill in 2010 will bring this issue to Chicago’s Mayoral race, making the issue a live one again in 2011.

Nevada: With a Governor supportive of vouchers and a favorable legal context, Nevada could have a new program.

New Jersey: Governor Christie continues to be a powerhouse in Jersey, battling the bully teacher unions and winning.  Though the unions at one point spent $6 million in attack adds in two months, polls suggest that he is winning the war of words by speaking clearly and exposing how the teachers unions operate.  Check out the Youtube videos, which have become something of a sensation, of Christie taking on the teachers unions.

Massachusetts:  Something of a long shot for parental choice, even Massachusetts is making a push for a tax-credit program, another sign that school choice is spreading and increasingly enjoys bi-partisan support and recognition that it works.

Ohio:  Finally having hit the cap in terms of applicants for existing vouchers spots, Ohio may be poised to expand its state-wide voucher program.

Pennsylvania: With both candidates for Governor supporting school choice expansion, Pennsylvania appears to have sufficient bi-partisan support for its tax-credit program to at least regain the funding that was lost, if not to expand funding levels for its scholarships.

Virginia: Likely a top pick for a new program, I think Virginia will make a push for a new scholarship tax-credit bill with strong support from Governor McDonnell.

Wisconsin:  Home of the first voucher program in Milwaukee, rumblings are beginning about a possible expansion to this already very strong program.

DC: And let’s not forget the District of Columbia and the battle over the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.  As I predicted, the D.C. OSP will rise again, hopefully bigger than before.

And there could be more.  A report from the Foundation for Educational Choice reveals that:

Voters in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, New Jersey, and New York decidedly favor charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, and vouchers…

Many of these states are long-shots, but it is notable that efforts are underway in so many states.  I think it is likely that we will see victories in Indiana, Virginia, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Washington D.C. in 2011, and perhaps others.  Between the new political climate, the constant flow of ed reform documentaries and national press, and the growing acceptance of parental choice in states around the country, I’m bullish for 2011.

To view the whole film, which is awesome, visit

A promising outcome of the landslide victory of the Republicans in the House and significant gains in the Senate, is the likelihood that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program will rise again.  Phased out by the Obama Administration and an antagonistic Democratic Congress, the D.C. OSP offered scholarships for some 1,700 low-income children in D.C., a place with notoriously bad urban public schools, to attend private schools of choice.  For many, this was a ticket out of a failing and potentially unsafe public school into a nurturing school that provided hope for a better life.  It was a tragedy when it was canceled, and helped cause the closing of up to four D.C. Catholic Schools.

With Speaker Boehner, a Catholic school advocate and a D.C. OSP supporter, at the helm, and Rep. Kline likely to take the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, it looks likely that the OSP will see a new day. I am hopeful, and think it is likely, that it will rise up bigger and better protected than before.

The Washington Times reported on Nov. 9

A spokeswoman for Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and likely chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said her boss and other House leaders continue to support the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and intend to pursue its revival.

“Congressman Kline is very focused on restoring the program,” spokeswoman Alexa Marrero said.

She added that presumptive House Speaker-to-be John A. Boehner and Rep. Darrell Issa, incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees D.C. affairs, also “remain strong supporters” of the D.C. voucher program.

The National Review published this article online on Nov. 4

An overlooked group of winners from Tuesday’s landslide election is low-income children living in Washington, D.C.  Speaker Boehner is likely to make reviving the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program a priority in the next Congress, setting the stage for an interesting confrontation with President Obama.

Since the 1990s, Boehner has championed policies to expand school choice options for kids trapped in low-performing schools. As the chairman of the Education Committee in 2004, he supported the Bush administration’s successful effort to create a pilot school voucher program in Washington, D.C. He also successfully pressed for school vouchers in the emergency federal aid package to help the many kids who were displaced by the Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005.

Beyond his work as a legislator, Boehner has been a tireless advocate for inner-city parochial schools. For years, Boehner has co-sponsored annual charity events with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (and other Democratic leaders), raising millions to help struggling parochial schools in Washington, D.C. The events also have provided a preview into the Republican’s softer side (which the country saw first-hand Tuesday night). He’s known for his tendency to choke up when talking about the need to give poor children a chance to attend better schools, and presides over these charity events with a box of tissues close at hand.

I offered a lot of posts on this issue during the drama over the OSP re-authorization, but here is a favorite, the letter from leaders from the University of Notre Dame to Secretary of Education Duncan and Senator Durbin.

As a former high school teacher in the Diocese of Charlotte, I couldn’t be more pleased to see the diocese opening a new Catholic high school, Christ the King, in the north side of the city, an area called Lake Norman, as reported here in the Charlotte Observer.  Charlotte is one of (if not THE) fastest growing diocese in the country, experiencing a boom in its Catholic population, largely due to transports from the Northeast and Midwest, but also due to one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the nation.

I hope that the Diocese of Charlotte can find new ways, amidst its growth and prosperity, to effectively serve this newest wave of immigrant Catholics.  As a larger banking town with a considerable amount of corporate wealth, Charlotte would seem to be a prime candidate for a number of highly effective programs that have found ways to make Catholic schools more accessible to low-income families.

Large privately funded scholarship programs like the Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago or the Fulcrum Foundation in Seattle could be very successful in Charlotte.  Though it may be difficult to think of yet another high school anytime soon, the Cristo Rey model could also be successful in Charlotte with the large corporate sector in the city.  A Nativity-Miguel middle school could be another interesting option.

It is a great day in the Diocese of Charlotte and great to see a community where Catholic education is expanding.  May we always keep asking how we can do better and do more, particularly for the neediest families and those that can benefit most from a quality Catholic education.

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!

In a powerful op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, iconic President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame and a leader in the civil rights movement, reflects upon education as the civil rights issue of our time.  Emphasizing the role of education in providing young people with equality of opportunity, he condemns the actions of congress in removing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Here are some selections:

If Martin Luther King Jr. told me once, he told me a hundred times that the key to solving our country’s race problem is plain as day: Find decent schools for our kids… Millions of our children—disproportionately poor and minority—remain trapped in failing public schools that condemn them to lives on the fringe of the American Dream.

For all these reasons, I was deeply disappointed when Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) successfully inserted a provision in last year’s omnibus spending bill that ended one of the best efforts to give these struggling children the chance to attend a safe and decent school.

Despite its successes, it is now closing down. On Tuesday the Senate voted against a measure introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) that would have extended the program. Throughout this process Mr. Duncan’s Education Department and the White House raised no protest.

Much has been written about the crisis in education, and the effective resegregation of our public schools. It’s clear who is paying the price.

Many of the parents using Opportunity Scholarships chose Catholic schools for their children even though they are not Catholic themselves. That’s no coincidence. When others abandoned the cities, the Catholic schools remained, and they continue to do heroic work.

At Notre Dame we launched our own efforts to bolster this mission. Our Alliance for Catholic Education, for example, takes talented young men and women, trains them to see teaching as a career, and then sends them into struggling inner-city schools such as Holy Redeemer in Washington, D.C.

But these inner-city schools can’t do it themselves. Recently the archdiocese of Washington announced that Holy Redeemer would be forced to close its doors at the end of the year because the families who send their children to the school are unable to afford it without the financial aid they receive from this program. The archdiocese stated that “decisions last year by the U.S. Department of Education and by Congress to phase out the federal D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program . . . negatively impacted Holy Redeemer’s financial situation.”

Of Holy Redeemer’s 149 students, 60 were on Opportunity Scholarships. Unlike so many of their peers, these kids were on their way to college. Now they have to find some other safe haven. Others will never get the chance at all.

I know that some consider voucher programs such as the Opportunity Scholarships a right-wing affair. I do not accept that label. This program was passed with the bipartisan support of a Republican president and Democratic mayor. The children it serves are neither Republican nor Democrat, liberal or conservative. They are the future of our nation, and they deserve better from our nation’s leaders.

I have devoted my life to equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of skin color. I don’t pretend that this one program is the answer to all the injustices in our education system. But it is hard to see why a program that has proved successful shouldn’t have the support of our lawmakers. The end of Opportunity Scholarships represents more than the demise of a relatively small federal program. It will help write the end of more than a half-century of quality education at Catholic schools serving some of the most at-risk African-American children in the District.

I cannot believe that a Democratic administration will let this injustice stand.

Father Hesburgh is the former president of the University of Notre Dame.

Despite the hopes of opponents that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program would quietly be phased out, supporters for this small and successful voucher program are tenacious.  See here for an op-ed in today’s Washington Post.

The fight has now been going on for months and a recent proposed amendment by Senate. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) to the Federal Aviation Administration would have reauthorized the program for another five years, allow new children to enter the program, modestly increase scholarship amounts, and continue a rigorous federal evaluation.

The Senate heard debate on Sen. Lieberman’s amendment this afternoon, including compelling speeches from Sens. Lieberman (I-CT), Collins (R-ME), Feinstein (D-CA), Voinovich (R-OH), and Ensign (R-NV)in support of the OSP.

Unfortunately the Senate voted down the Lieberman Amendment: 42 – 55.

This is a tragedy for the students of D.C. and for many urban private schools serving low-income minority children, as I’ve discussed earlier.  This proves to opponents, yet again, that this program won’t go away quietly and that parents and education reform advocates will keep fighting.

My guess is that this issue will come up again and again until the program is reauthorized, likely bigger and better than the first time.  This may happen as soon as the mid-term elections, where it is likely that democrats will lose ground.

So, although this is a loss in the short term, I think it will prove that these programs don’t die easily and are likely to be resurrected quickly when the landscape changes.  And in the mean time, while the fight in D.C.continues, many other states are making progress.

Leadership from the Univeristy of Notre Dame have written a letter to Education Secretary, Arne Duncan and Senator Durbin deploring the termination of the of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The authors include Rev. John Jenkins CSC, President of the University of Notre Dame, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh CSC, President Emeritus of Notre Dame and legendary Civil Rights advocate, and Rev. Timothy Scully  CSC, Director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives and Founder of the Alliance for Catholic Education.  As Matt Ladner commented on Jay P. Greene’s blog, “they don’t pull their punches.”

Dear Senator Durbin and Secretary Duncan,

Warmest greetings from the University of Notre Dame.  We hope this letter finds both of you well, and that the new year has been filled with grace and blessings for you and your families.

We write today because we are all deeply disappointed by the turn of events that has led to the imminent demise of the Washington DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), and we are gravely concerned about the effects that the unprecedented gestures that have jeopardized this program will have on some of the most at-risk children in our nation’s capital.

For the past decade, the University of Notre Dame, through its Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), has served as the nation’s largest provider of teachers and principals for inner-city Catholic schools.  Since 1993, we have prepared more than 1,000 teachers and hundreds of principals to work in some of the poorest Catholic schools in the nation.  That experience, along with the research that we have sponsored through our Center for Research on Educational Opportunity, leads us to an unqualified conclusion: the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program provides an educational lifeline to at-risk children, standing unequivocally as one of the greatest signs of hope for K-12 educational reform.  To allow its demise, to effectively force more than 1,700 poor children from what is probably the only good school they’ve ever attended, strikes us as an unconscionable affront to the ideal of equal opportunity for all.

Three decades of research tell us that Catholic schools are often the best providers of educational opportunity to poor and minority children.  Students who attend Catholic schools are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and are two and a half times more likely to graduate from college than their peers in public schools.  Recent scholarship on high school graduation rates in Milwaukee confirms that programs like the OSP can, over time, create remarkable opportunities for at-risk children.  And after only three years, the research commissioned by the Department of Education is clear and strong with regard to the success of the OSP, as you both well know.  This program empowers parents to become more involved in their children’s education.  Parents of OSP students argue that their children are doing better in school, and they report that these scholarships have given their families an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.  If this program ends, these parents will be forced to send their children back to a school system that is ranked among the worst in the nation, into schools they fought desperately to leave just a few years ago.

At Notre Dame, we have recently witnessed the painful but logical outcomes of your failure to save the OSP.  For the past three years, the University of Notre Dame has worked in close partnership with Holy Redeemer School, a preK-8 Catholic school community located just a few blocks from Senator Durbin’s office on the Hill.  In fact, Senator Durbin visited the school and expressed his deeply favorable impression.  We too have witnessed the transformative capacity of Holy Redeemer, a place where parents report feeling a sincere sense of ownership in their children’s education for the first time in their lives.  Indeed, over the past three years strong leadership, excellent academics, low teacher turnover, and committed parents have all contributed to truly outstanding gains in student achievement.  The children at Holy Redeemer were, unlike so many of their peers, on the path to college.

So we were deeply saddened to learn that the impending termination of the OSP has put the school in an untenable situation, leading the pastor to conclude that the school must be closed.  Families are presently being notified that their children will have to find a new school next year.  The end of the OSP represents more than the demise of a relatively small federal program; it spells the end of more than a half-century of quality Catholic education for some of the most at-risk African American children in the District.  That this program is being allowed to end is both unnecessary and unjust.

We—and many others in the Notre Dame community—are wholeheartedly committed to protecting the educational opportunity of these children.  We encourage you to reconsider protecting the OSP and the children it serves from this grave and historic injustice.  You are joined by Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, by the faculty and students on Notre Dame’s campus, by tens of thousands of Notre Dame alumni nationwide, and by millions of Catholic school families across the country in a steadfast commitment to ensure that these children continue to receive the educational opportunity that is their birthright.

Please know of our deepest appreciation for your consideration of this request.  We hope and pray that we can work together with you to save this program.

Yours, in Notre Dame,

Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC

President, University of Notre Dame

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC

President Emeritus, University of Notre Dame

Rev. Timothy R. Scully, CSC

Director, Institute for Educational Initiatives

University of Notre Dame

It is hopeful to see a dogged fight over the unjust killing of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program.  These families are fighters and thanks to a few brave political leaders, their voices are continuing to be heard.

Washington Post Editorial today – Lieberman is set to announce plans Thursday to offer the reauthorization as an amendment to legislation moving in the Senate, and he’s hoping for help from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), majority whip and chairman of the subcommittee that funds the program.

Washington Times Editorial from Tuesday – summarizing the letter from Lieberman and Boehner to the President, it basically suggests Obama has been dishonest, saying that he would support programs that work and then helping to pull the plug on this successful program.

DC Vouchers Will Not Go Quietly – Jay P. Greene – which basically says that this issue won’t die, much to the President Obama’s, Secretary Arne Duncan’s and Senator Dick Durban’s chagrin…

It is a political liability to take scholarships away from poor kids that allow them to attend good schools and send them back to D.C.’s public schools, which 86% of the students in the Scholarship Program will be forced to do.

Andy Smarick at Flypaper Points to the hypocrisy of this administration’s treatment of the D.C. Scholarships, calling it “a black mark on the administration’s education record,” referring to Obama sending his two girls to an expensive private school but denying poor families this same opportunity, and the administration spending billions on an untested Race to the Top program while shutting down a program that has been proven to work by a gold standard evaluation.

Heritage Foundation Blog“This morning, families, students and community members gathered at the Capitol to show their support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is currently being phased-out by the Obama administration. Senator Joe Lieberman and Senator Susan Collins hosted a press conference to discuss the impact of the successful program…” “During today’s press conference, Senator Collins reported that 86 percent of children in the Opportunity Scholarship program will have to return to District schools that are failing.” This is scandalous.

And they added in this nice clip from the Film “Let Me Rise”