School-voucher backers push bills
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Energized by this summer's Supreme Court decision, legislators in as many as 20 states will introduce bills that would allow families to use taxpayer funds for private or religious schools, voucher advocates say.
They're also using the courts to try to expand long-established programs in Maine and Vermont.
But both sides in the bitter voucher debate are in surprising agreement over what will happen next in schools: not much.
"I think it's unlikely that there's going to be some revolutionary, overnight change, but I see definite momentum in the direction of greater choice," said Clark Neily, who litigates voucher or "school-choice" programs for the Washington-based Institute for Justice.
A June 27 Supreme Court ruling declared Cleveland's voucher program constitutional, saying taxpayer funds could go to religious schools as long as families have other options available. But the long-awaited decision did nothing to close the huge political gap separating the two camps.
It also didn't settle the question of whether other state laws allow such programs. On Aug. 5, a Florida court struck down the state's rapidly growing voucher program, saying Florida's constitution forbids the use of tax money to fund religious schools. Gov. Jeb Bush, who strongly backed the 1999 law, said the state will appeal and try to prevent the ruling from taking effect this school year.
Elsewhere, lawmakers in California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Kansas and Missouri are considering new voucher programs.
In Kansas, where the Legislature is dominated by Republicans, state Sen. Kay O'Connor said she'll introduce a voucher bill in January, as she has for each of the past nine years. So far, it has only seen one vote, a 98-23 House defeat in 1995.
O'Connor, a Republican who represents a conservative northeast Kansas district, said she's hopeful the Supreme Court victory will buoy the bill.
"This is the first year that there seems to be a real surge of interest in school choice, so I hope to be able to take advantage of it," she said.
But even O'Connor won't predict the bill's fate, saying it could take up to two years to build support among moderates. Like many voucher advocates, she's in a "watch-and-wait mode" until the November elections.
In Maine, Rep. Kevin Glynn, a Republican who represents South Portland, said he'll introduce a bill in January to extend the state's existing voucher program to religious schools. But Glynn says he also anxiously awaits the results of the Nov. 5 election Maine's Legislature is split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats, with a term-limited governor whose term expires this year.
"The election returns are going to decide whether or not vouchers have legs in Maine," he said.
Maine's current program allows small communities with no elementary or secondary schools to send students to a local private school. The program doesn't fund religious schools.
A similar program exists in Vermont.
Few observers believe the new legislative efforts will produce results in more than one or two states, if any.
"They get dropped in," said Michael Pons, a policy analyst for the National Education Association, which has lobbied vigorously against vouchers. "They don't usually get to the floor."
Pons said voucher proponents have yet to make their case to moderate, middle-class voters or to moderate lawmakers who control most state legislatures.
Neily responded that white suburbanites, for one, naturally don't like vouchers.
"They're not huge into school choice because they've already exercised it," he said. "They moved out to the good schools."
An Associated Press poll conducted last month by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa., found that 51% of voters support vouchers for low-income families. That support drops to 31% when they're told vouchers could mean less money for public schools.
Voucher advocates say the allowances can actually end up saving money, since states can spend less per-pupil to send the average student to a private school.
In the meantime, they're focusing on inner-city minority families, especially blacks who are fed up with unsafe, underperforming public schools.
While vouchers supply the most brash education debate, they actually involve a minuscule number of students. About 48 million children attend public schools, compared to 5 million in private schools. Of those, about 31,000 attended private schools on government vouchers last spring.
The largest program is in Milwaukee, where nearly 11,000 low-income students received state-provided vouchers of up to $5,500.
In Cleveland, about 4,400 low-income students participated in the city's program, receiving, on average, $1,620.
In the 1999-2000 school year in Florida, 44 children left failing schools to attend a private or religious school with taxpayer money. This fall, an estimated 700 will participate if the program is allowed to continue, said Daniel Woodring, the state education department's general counsel.
Florida also offers vouchers to disabled students about 4,600 students took one last year, and an estimated 10,000 will do the same this fall, Woodring said.
In Maine, about 6,000 students last spring attended privates schools with public funds, while 5,000 students participated in Vermont's program.
Neily's group hopes to use court cases to expand the limited voucher programs in Maine and Vermont to religious schools.
Neily is also pursuing litigation in Washington, a state with especially tough laws on government funding of religion.
Within hours of last June's Supreme Court decision, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, introduced a bill in Congress that would give vouchers of up to $5,000 to public school students in Washington, D.C. It's expected to meet strong resistance in the Senate, currently controlled by Democrats. A similar bill passed the Republican-controlled Congress in 1997; President Clinton vetoed it.
Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that supports vouchers, said, "There's going to be a lot of activity and a lot of interest, but real, viable efforts that have a likelihood of winning depend upon a lot of factors, and those factors sometimes take time, like any political effort."
President Bush has championed vouchers, but Congress last year shelved his proposal to give students up to $1,500 in federal funds for private school tuition if test scores in their neighborhood school didn't stack up. Instead, Congress approved a plan that lets students either use federal funds for limited private tutoring or transfer to a better-performing public school. In some cases, students can use federal funds for transportation to the new school. Bush signed the bill last January, and communities nationwide anticipate offering tutoring and transfers this fall to students in about 8,000 schools.
This fall, Congress will likely consider a voucher-like proposal that wouldn't actually give money to families, but allow them to deduct up to $3,000 per child from their federal income tax bill after paying tuition to private schools or for any other educational expense, such as tutoring, computers, supplies or books. A more restrictive version, favored by President Bush, would allow families to deduct up to $2,500 for private school tuition, but only if they live in a neighborhood with a failing public school.
Similar efforts are expected in Colorado and Utah.
Currently, families in five states Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania can claim tax credits or deductions for private school tuition or other education expenses.
Families in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania can claim a tax credit for donations to private organizations that give scholarships to public school students to attend private schools.
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