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Tuesday, April 08, 2003

New Life For School Vouchers

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article on efforts around the country to advance the idea of school vouchers.

State Lawmakers Are Giving
School Vouchers New Steam


The long-stalled school-voucher movement is gaining ground.

Last week, the Colorado legislature passed a bill that would allow low-income students to use public money to enroll in private or parochial schools in large, poorly performing school districts. Colorado's voters solidly defeated two voucher-related referendums during the 1990s, but now both houses of the legislature are under Republican control. A spokesman for the Republican governor, Bill Owens, says he plans to sign the legislation later this month.

In Florida, voucher advocates in the Republican-controlled legislature are leveraging the hostilities in Iraq to try to expand the Sunshine State's small voucher program. The Florida house recently passed a bill that would give the children of military veterans and active-duty personnel vouchers to pay for private school.

"I have never seen as much legislative activity as I've seen this year," says Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal advocacy group that helped defend Cleveland's voucher program before the Supreme Court. "We have never had as many prospects."

The mere notion of letting families use public money to pay for private-school tuition once was considered a radical nostrum of the far right, but a favorable Supreme Court ruling in June and election victories by supporters in November have changed that.

The movement is also gaining support from quarters that once seemed unlikely. Earlier this year, Colorado's attorney general, Ken Salazar, broke ranks with his fellow Democrats and announced that he would support a voucher plan. In a Feb. 20 letter to friends and colleagues, Mr. Salazar explained that, amid high dropout rates among minority students in the inner cities, "we should embrace experimentation and innovation in any way that will help us address this challenge."

Though originally proposed as a small pilot program involving a few Denver schools, the Colorado voucher bill was amended to encompass 11 large school districts and is expected to enroll an estimated 17,500 students by the 2007-08 school year. That would make it far larger than Milwaukee's voucher program, which enrolls about 11,000 students and is the largest of the nation's existing voucher programs. (The others are in Cleveland and the state of Florida.)

Meanwhile, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the District of Columbia school board, stunned colleagues late last month by saying that she now supports a voucher program. Most other local elected leaders in Washington, D.C., oppose vouchers , but Congress largely controls the city, and some observers say the nation's capital could be the voucher movement's next high-profile victory.

Congress approved a voucher program for the city's schools in 1997, but President Clinton vetoed the measure. Now, with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, President Bush's budget for fiscal 2004 proposes setting aside an unspecified portion of his $756 million allotment for school-choice initiatives to launch a Washington, D.C., voucher program.

"My view is that this Congress would be likely to pass it regardless of what local legislators say," says Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, a Washington-based liberal advocacy group.

Efforts to pass voucher legislation in the states mark a change in strategy for voucher proponents who, beginning in the early 1990s, attempted to use referendums to create voucher programs in states including Michigan and California but repeatedly suffered lopsided defeats.

In Texas, voucher opponents in the state legislature once kept related bills bottled up in committee. Now, with Republicans in control of top state offices and both legislative branches, Gov. Rick Perry is backing a voucher effort that has the support of top legislative leaders and, by some estimates, could involve as many as 600,000 students. "We are definitely seeing it move quickly," says Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based advocacy group opposed to vouchers .

Voucher proposals never used to go far in the Louisiana legislature either, and a recent poll shows that voters are still split on the issue. Nonetheless, this year, popular Gov. Mike Foster is putting his political standing on the line to lead a voucher charge that has the active backing of the New Orleans Catholic archdiocese.

Not that the newfound political clout of supporters makes vouchers a shoo-in. Three dozen states have constitutional provisions barring state money from going to parochial schools and, in places like South Carolina, voucher initiatives have been shelved amid concern over staggering budget deficits.

Write to Robert Tomsho at rob.tomsho@wsj.com

Pretty creative excerpting, huh?

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