A couple years ago, I would have said that the growth prospects for school voucher plans were not good. Proposals to allow students to attend private and religious schools using public money had died in several states, court rulings had not been favorable in places such as Florida where there were strongly worded constitutional bans (“Blaine amendments”) on giving public money to religious schools, research on student achievement in Milwaukee, the nation’s main show case of voucher use, had shown nothing impressive, and Congress had pulled the plug on a voucher program in Washington, D.C.
The landscape is much different now, thanks primarily to the 2010 elections and the wave of Republican victories.
There’s legislative action on multiple fronts in Wisconsin. Bills to lift the enrollment cap on Milwaukee’s voucher program and to allow suburban schools to accept city of Milwaukee voucher students are moving ahead. A proposal to phase out the family income limits for voucher recipients has brought controversy and seems likely to morph into raising, but not eliminating, the income standard. And this week, Gov. Scott Walker said he supports expanding the program to include Racine, Beloit, and Green Bay.
It is useful to put the local developments in national context. Here are three examples of what’s going on:
Indiana – Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a bill last week that will make voucehrs available statewide. By the third year, the number of students who can receive them will be unlimited. The plan has some differences from the one in Milwaukee, but some strong similarities and it could have a sizeable impact on the educational scene across the state.
Washington, D.C. – As part of the deal struck a few weeks ago to keep the federal government from shutting down, Republicans were adamant about including revival of the Washington Opportunity Scholarship program which provides money for several thousand low income students in the District of Columbia to attend private schools. House Speaker John Boehner is a leading supporter of the program. President Barack Obama signed the agreement. At a national conference this week of voucher supporters, a prominent point was made of the fact that that this made Obama the first Democratic president to sign a voucher plan, even if he didn’t actually support it.
US Supreme Court – Particularly in places where the state constitution bars straight voucher payments, an alternative in which donors are given a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for money they give to private schools has been an alternative. In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled that a tax credit is not the same as a payment of government money, even if it reduces government income by the same amount. This could lead to growth of tax credit plans.
Expect more news on the voucher and tax credit front from other states. There still isn’t much strong evidence that student achievement improves because of voucher plans. But the movement is on the march.