Defeats, Some Victories Scored by School Choice Supporters

As many state legislative sessions drew to a close for 2005, the fate of several school choice initiatives was decided for the year.

In Arizona on May 20, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) vetoed corporate tax credit legislation school choice supporters had expected to become law as part of a budget deal made a few weeks earlier. The budget Napolitano signed included her funding priorities, such as a new medical school branch campus, expansion of all-day kindergarten, and funding for social programs-all of which she negotiated in exchange for approving the tax credit legislation.

Napolitano said she vetoed the tax credit initiative because Republicans did not include a five-year sunset on the legislation. School choice advocates accused the governor of breaking her promise to Arizona children.

“The governor is a liar,” Rep. Eddie Farnsworth (R-Gilbert) told the Arizona Daily Star afterward.

“It’s unfortunate that for the moment this bipartisan agreement has been turned on its head,” Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation President Gordon St. Angelo said in a May 20 news release. “Children in Arizona shouldn’t have to wait for greater educational freedom because of legislative wrangling.”

The tax credit legislation would have allowed scholarships for 1,000 economically disadvantaged children to attend private schools. At press time, Napolitano was considering calling a special session to resolve the matter, indicating she may approve the corporate tax credit legislation if it includes the five-year sunset provision.

Amendments Overwhelm Florida Bill

In Florida, the 2005 session closed on May 6 with the legislature failing to agree on school choice accountability legislation. The proposed measure would have barred schools that accept vouchers from discriminating on the basis of religion, required student progress to be measured using one of four standardized tests, and subjected voucher schools to unscheduled visits by an auditor. On the last day of the session, House members opposing the bill tacked 281 pages of amendments onto it, and the Senate did not take it up again.

Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has promised to tighten up school choice accountability and monitoring through an executive order.

In addition, Bush had hoped to expand the state’s voucher program dramatically this year. The Reading Compact Scholarship would have given a taxpayer-funded voucher to any student scoring at the lowest level on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test for three consecutive years. The Senate voted to reject the program, saying it didn’t want to expand vouchers before the state supreme court rules on the Opportunity Scholarship program. Oral arguments on that case were held June 7.

Some Existing Programs Expand

Florida’s corporate scholarship tax credit program funding cap rose from $50 million to $88 million. A May 8 news release from the Alliance for School Choice noted the tax credit expansion-passed by the legislature as part of an omnibus budget package-nearly doubles the current expenditures and will enable up to 9,000 additional low-income students to use scholarships to attend private schools over the next 18 months.

Approximately 11,500 students are currently enrolled in the state’s scholarship tax credit program. That number could swell to 15,000 students this fall and to 20,000 students by the 2006-07 school year. Scholarship funding organizations may award up to $3,500 per student.

In Ohio, the Senate version of the state budget, released May 24, maintained the statewide voucher program passed by the House on April 12. The House created the program with 18,000 vouchers for children in low-performing districts. The Senate kept the concept, but scaled it back to 10,000 students in low-performing schools.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.