School Choice Gains Ground

Recently, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels -- a longtime choice supporter -- signed a hotly-contested budget bill that contained, among much else, a $2.5 million school choice program that will serve thousands of students. Union efforts to strip the program from the budget were fought off both during the regular legislative session and during the final budget negotiations. The new program provides what are known as "tax-credit scholarships" -- just like vouchers except they're administered by private organizations and funded through the tax code.

Arizona also enacted a new school choice program this year. After a long track record of legal wins for school choice in that state, the unions finally managed to induce judges to strike down two very small voucher programs. The state's two much larger tax-credit scholarship programs were unaffected, since the state's high court blessed that form of choice years ago. The legislature promptly responded to the new ruling by enacting a tax-credit scholarship program to provide the same school choice to the same students as the old voucher programs -- but now under the protection of legal precedent.

Similar programs in Florida and Iowa were expanded this year. The two states have each expanded the scope of corporations who can donate to their tax-credit scholarships, which is expected to bring millions of new dollars into the programs to serve thousands more students in each state.

Georgia, which has become the nation's leader in new school choice programs, began consideration of a universal voucher program. Every child in the state would be voucher-eligible. The bill has passed committee, and under the state's multi-year process for legislation it will move forward for consideration by the full Senate next year.

New Jersey is also considering legislation that would create a new school choice program. And school choice legislation in Montana and Virginia got further than ever before this year, leaving the issue well positioned for future progress.

Does this mean 2009 is a great year for school choice? No, this is a more difficult year than most. Like every movement worth fighting for, school choice goes through its ups and downs.

But it's important to measure both the bad and the good, and look at the whole picture. Clearly the movement is not dead just because two of the 24 school choice programs that exist nationwide are experiencing turbulence.

We had a really great year for school choice in 2006; five new programs were created. But then we had a tough year in 2007. A universal voucher program passed by the Utah legislature and signed by the governor was overruled by a union-backed referendum.

But you know what? That same year, Georgia enacted a large voucher program for special-needs students. And then in the next year, 2008, things were going well again -- three new school choice programs were enacted, another large one in Georgia (with no restrictions on student eligibility) and two smaller ones in Louisiana.

The bottom line is that the D.C. and Milwaukee programs are in trouble because they're legacy programs; they're the old model of school choice, designed as charity programs that only serve the most disadvantaged. As a result, it's hard to mobilize political support for them. The constituencies that benefit most are the least powerful.

Georgia, with its more broad-based programs, is pointing the way forward. School choice that serves all students, not just some, is where the movement is headed -- precisely because it's the only model where the political math adds up.

Our national future -- in the form of our children's education -- is being demolished by a government monopoly that exists to serve the interests of a union gravy train. School choice has consistently worked, both to serve participants better and to improve all schools through competition.

The bottom line comes down to only two questions. Is our national future worth fighting for? And is there any other movement -- is there anything else at all -- that has shown any sign of producing the kind of positive educational results that are necessary to save it?