While China rings in 2010 as the year of the tiger, American families and taxpayers might soon be able to refer to 2010 as the year school choice became the norm. Five states in particular are worth watching: Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Virginia and New Jersey.
Ironically perhaps, Illinois is home to the most notable opponents of school choice in D.C. – Senator Durbin, the chief architect of the plan to eliminate the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, Education Secretary Arne Duncan who exercised school choice by purchasing a home in northern Virginia where the schools – unlike those in the District – are acceptable, but who opposes school choice for low-income students in that same District, and President Obama, himself a scholarship recipient as a child and who has enrolled his two children in the poshest private school in D.C. Yet in Illinois, a robust voucher initiative has been introduced by an unlikely champion: the Rev. James Meeks, a Democratic state senator. Bill McGurn writes in the Wall Street Journal:
James T. Meeks does not fit the usual stereotype of a voucher advocate. To begin with, he is founder and senior pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, the largest African-American church in Illinois. He serves as executive vice-president for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Oh, yes: He is a Democratic state senator who chairs both his chamber’s education committee and the legislature’s Black Caucus.
A few years back, Barack Obama named him someone he looked to for “spiritual counsel.” Now the man they call “the Reverend Senator” has done the unthinkable: He’s introduced a bill to provide vouchers for as many as 42,000 students now languishing in Chicago’s worst public schools. He tells me he thinks he can get enough Democrats on his coalition to get it through.
’I’m banking on the difficulty Democrats will have telling these parents, ‘No, you’re not going to have choice. Your kids are locked into these failing schools’
In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels has taken note of the successful education reforms that were implemented in Florida under former governor Jeb Bush’s tenure, and has decided to bring a little of the Sunshine State’s success to the Hoosier State. In September, Governor Bush participated in an education roundtable event with Daniels and Indiana Education Secretary Tony Bennett. Indiana passed an education tax credit program in 2009, and Governor Daniels seems eager to embrace many other reform measures. The Indiana Star Press notes:
The new tax credit scholarship program is important educational news to all families in Indiana. The tax-credit scholarship program came about from the special session of the 2009 Indiana Legislature, and it is a small step in the right direction for school choice for Indiana parents.
The fact is that the program is also a tax saver for the taxpayers of Indiana. The program offers private tax credits to donors up to $2.5 million to help fund lower income families who want to choose a school that the parents feel is the best education for their child.
The tax credit scholarship program will allow Indiana to save thousands of taxpayer dollars that normally would be paid to public schools at a much higher cost per child. This saving to the state is at a time when virtually every other interest group in education is clamoring for more funding.
And speaking of Florida, the state that has been at the forefront of education reform over the past decade has not slowed down its efforts to improve academic achievement. Education Week writes today:
State lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in Florida are already voicing support for new legislation that would increase the value of the state’s tax-credit vouchers, which are funded by private corporations that, in exchange for their contributions, receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits.
Significant opposition to vouchers remains in Florida—chiefly from the Florida Education Association—but a growing number of Democrats in the Republican-dominated legislature and around the state have begun to shed their opposition to the usually politically polarizing issue, observers say.
And while Virginia has always been “for lovers,” the commonwealth may soon be able to amend that slogan to “Virginia is for education lovers”. Governor Bob McDonnell and education secretary Gerard Robinson are pushing to increase the number of charter schools operating in the state – which has a mere three such charters at present – and will do so this week. The Washington Post reports:
Instead of the current practice that invests all chartering authority with local school boards, Mr. McDonnell wants charter school applicants to receive a pre-certification of quality from the state. He also would allow charter applicants rejected by their local board to appeal to the state Board of Education. Both changes would support the development of quality charter schools.
But New Jersey is perhaps the most exciting state to watch in 2010, and may well end up being the unlikely poster child for sweeping education reform. Education Week again writes:
New Jersey, a heavily unionized state dominated by Democrats, could become the next high-profile battleground over vouchers. Newly inaugurated Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, championed vouchers and other forms of school choice in his successful campaign against incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat who was a staunch opponent of vouchers.
Mr. Christie also just appointed Bret Schundler, a pro-voucher former mayor of Jersey City, as New Jersey’s education commissioner… School choice advocates hope Mr. Christie’s leadership will revive a push by a group of influential Democratic urban lawmakers and community activists to bring vouchers to the eight cities in New Jersey where the public schools are most troubled…
A committee appointed by Mr. Christie to make recommendations on education policy advised the governor in January to back that effort, and to expand it beyond the eight cities.
And if you’d like to put a human face to the power of vouchers for New Jersey students, check out the trailer for The Street Stops Here, which enjoyed a private screening at Heritage last night and will air on PBS March 31st at 10:00 p.m.
Despite the promising state efforts afoot across the country, Washington, D.C. families are still fighting for the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal education outlook: the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Perhaps President Obama will see what’s happening around the country – and take a close look in particular at his home state of Illinois – and afford the same opportunities to the children in the nation’s capital.