WASHINGTON -- A decade ago, almost any discussion about reforming the nation's public schools included vouchers. The idea of letting students use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools appealed to conservatives, who liked the notion of subjecting public schools to competition. Some Democratic mayors, frustrated with the slow pace of school improvement, also rallied behind vouchers.
Then, vouchers got overtaken by other ideas about how to shake up public schools. Unions vehemently opposed vouchers, arguing they would starve public schools of funding. Vouchers were left out of the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law, making it difficult for programs to gain a foothold in school districts. More recently, the Obama administration left vouchers out of its Race to the Top grant program, even as it endorsed other reforms such as charter schools and pay-for-performance plans for teachers.
Now, private school vouchers seem poised to make a comeback. Newly elected Republican governors in Florida, Nevada and Wisconsin are pushing plans to give private school vouchers to thousands of families, as is Indiana's Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels. In all of those states but Nevada, Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, giving the voucher plans a good chance of passage.
Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott has proposed the most far-reaching of the new voucher plans. Most previous school voucher efforts were targeted at low-income students, but Scott wants to create "education savings accounts" that would help pay private school tuition for any student in the state. Under the plan, every family with a school-aged child could get 85 percent of the per-pupil cost in public schools -- roughly $5,500 -- to use for school expenses outside the public system. That could include private school tuition, materials for home schooling or other education-related costs.
Milwaukee launched the country's first large-scale private school voucher program in 1990, prompting a flood of similar proposals in other urban school districts. Today, there are 18 voucher programs in 12 states.
Vouchers are nothing new in Florida. They were a primary feature of the education agenda of former Gov. Jeb Bush, who implemented the nation's first statewide school voucher program. But the state Supreme Court invalidated that plan in 2006, saying it violated a constitutional mandate to create a free and uniform public school system. Other aspects of Bush's program remain in place, however. Florida runs a voucher system for children with disabilities and gives tax credits to corporations that donate to private school scholarship programs.
A revived statewide voucher program "would be a really big deal," says Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who supports school voucher programs. "Florida has been a leader on education reform."
It's unclear whether Scott's plan would pass a legal challenge. It's also unclear what its budget impact would be. Depending on how the plan unfolds, it could attract parents who already pay out-of-pocket to send their children to private schools. Last year, there were more than 300,000 Florida children enrolled in private schools.
At least 40 states have language in their constitutions forbidding them from funding religion or religious schools, a provision known as the "Blaine Amendment." While Florida's Supreme Court overturned the most high-profile parts of Bush's voucher program, saying it violated the Blaine Amendment, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found that Milwaukee's voucher system did not violate the amendment.
Currently, the size of Milwaukee's program is capped at 22,500 pupils. Wisconsin Gov.-elect Scott Walker says he wants to expand Milwaukee's voucher program. He's also called for lifting a statewide cap on online schools.
In Nevada, Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval wants to make way for private school vouchers by passing a constitutional amendment. Doing so would protect the program from being undone by court orders or a less friendly legislature in the future. Sandoval's plan has met with resistance from the state's superintendent, Keith Rheault, who argues that vouchers could cost the state as much as $100 million.
Some Democratic lawmakers, particularly those representing inner-city districts with struggling schools also have embraced vouchers. Illinois state Sen. James Meeks, who is running for the Democratic nomination for Chicago mayor, has said he wants to offer a $4,500 voucher to 50,000 families.
The new voucher plans come as the Obama administration is winding down a federally funded voucher program in Washington, D.C. The administration let funding expire for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, even as it embraced other controversial reform efforts through the Race to the Top grants.
Republicans have vowed to fight to restore the D.C. voucher program, which was created in 2004 to give low-income students $7,500 in tuition to attend private or parochial schools.
Voucher supporters point to a U.S. Department of Education study this summer that found that students in the scholarship program were more likely to graduate from high school than students not in the program. But the report also noted that students in the program did not do better on standardized reading and math tests.
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