School Choice Programs Snowball
Earlier this year, Indiana implemented a progressive education-reform plan that includes a voucher program that will allow more than 50 percent of low- and middle-income students to attend private or religious schools. The state also has a new tax-deduction program for families who are already in private schools or are homeschooling, and has relaxed restrictions on charter schools.
Ohio dramatically expanded its Edchoice Scholarship Program, increased its cap and pool size of eligible students, and established a new program for special-needs students.
Georgia, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Florida are among the states that have new or enhanced tax-credit scholarship programs. In addition to its New Orleans—based school voucher program, Louisiana now offers greater state income-tax breaks for private school tuition. In North Carolina, parents of children with special needs can now claim a tax credit for private-school tuition expenses (up to $6,000).
Arizona has the nation's first educational savings account program for special-needs children. The state deposits 90 percent of the per-pupil educational funding into a savings account that parents can use for a broad range of expenses. (The program is now being challenged in court.)
This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out a legal challenge to an Arizona program in which taxpayers gain tax credits for donations to local nonprofit scholarship funds. In 2009, the program provided an average of $1,889 in private-school tuition scholarships to 27,500 students.
A Contested Struggle
These gains, often parent-led, have not gone unchallenged. In several states, teachers' unions and church-state watchdogs are contesting the programs.
The Indiana State Teachers Association has sued over the state's new voucher program, currently funding nearly 3,800 students. Students use vouchers worth up to $7,930 to attend one of the 250 participating private schools, all but six of which are religious. The union has argued that the program violates the state's constitution and will siphon off funds from public schools.
In Florida, a teachers' union has challenged a Republican-led ballot proposal to repeal the state's Blaine Amendment, which bans the public funding of churches and religious organizations. The union says the effort is "a shady way of opening the door for school vouchers for all." Proponents counter by saying that lifting the ban would prevent religiously affiliated schools from being discriminated against.
In Colorado, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sought an injunction blocking Douglas County's new Choice Scholarship pilot voucher program. Some 14 of the 19 private schools approved to participate are religious.
Attorney Bolick is part of the legal team that successfully defended Cleveland's voucher program before the Supreme Court in a landmark 2002 case. He said that even in states with Blaine amendments, where vouchers have been struck down, school-choice supporters still have many options.
"We now have four arrows in our quiver: private-school vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, and charter schools," said Bolick.