Voucher Vexation

From Florida To Indiana And Beyond, Battles Over Tax Aid To Religious Schools Are Erupting In Many State Legislatures

New Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has a plan for public education in the state: He’s thinking of doing away with it.

Scott has proposed establishing “education savings accounts” – yet another term for vouchers – that would be available to every student in Florida. Public education advocates in the Sunshine State are alarmed.

“There had been talk of expansion of the [voucher] program,” state Rep. Rick Kriseman, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, told the St. Petersburg Times. “But that’s not an expansion. That’s a takeover. If what the governor wants to happen occurs, public education as we know it ceases to exist.”

“There goes public education,” added Janet Clark, a member of the Pinellas County School Board.

Florida already has two limited voucher programs aimed at disabled and low-income children, and Scott sent a strong signal that he wants to expand those programs when he met with students at a private school in December and vowed to take vouchers statewide. A report issued by his education transition team forthrightly called for vouchers and “school choice.”

The push in Florida comes even though one existing private school subsidy has been found sorely wanting. The Florida Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarship Program has poured nearly $500 million in tax revenue into private schools since 2002, yet only limited oversight mechanisms have been put in place to ensure that students are learning, reported the Jacksonville Times-Union.

Under the program, companies can choose to divert up to 75 percent of the corporate income tax they owe into non-profit groups that distribute vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Critics say it is essentially a backdoor voucher plan.

Public school students in Florida are required to take a standardized test to measure achievement, but the private schools taking part in the aid program are exempt. Unlike public school teachers, private school teachers are not required to be certified.


Recently, educators and some politicians have been calling for more accountability. Ed Pratt-Dannals, superintendent of Duval County Schools, criticized the program, remarking, “There’s not really accountability with a common metric to determine if these students are getting a good education. If accountability is good, if high-stakes testing is good, if slapping a grade on a school is good, then why would you not do that for a school that’s receiving public money? It’s called being consistent.”

Supporters of church-state separation and public education are gearing up for a fight.

In a recent letter to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, president of the Board of Trustees of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote, “Who should make the decision about how much money any citizen contributes to religious groups – that citizen, or the government? Most Americans would have no trouble answering that question. All of us want the right to freely make our own choices about religion. This voucher program will undercut that right by requiring taxpayer support for religious schools.”

Florida is not the only state looking at a voucher battle in 2011. Gains by ultra-conservative forces in many legislatures in November mean that several states could see bruising altercations over various forms of tax aid to religious and other private schools.

A preliminary survey by Americans United uncovered activity in the following states:

Illinois: During a brief stint as a candidate for mayor of Chicago, Illinois state Sen. James Meeks (D) proposed offering $4,500 vouchers to 50,000 pupils in the city. As a member of the state Senate last year, Meeks pushed a voucher bill that passed the Senate but didn’t make it through the House. Meeks pulled out of the mayoral race Dec. 23 but could push the voucher plan anew in 2011.

Indiana: Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) in late December unveiled an education plan that included a large voucher component. Daniels wants to make vouchers available to “low and moderate” income residents statewide, saying the stipends would be worth as much as $5,500.

The plan would allow private schools to decide which students to accept and would have no cap on the number of pupils taking part. If passed, it would be one of the most sweeping voucher programs in the country.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett supports the plan and that it “is sure to be controversial but is expected to be well-received by a majority of Republicans in the Indiana House and Senate.”

Maryland: A measure designed to allocate $10 million to bail out ailing Catholic schools in Baltimore was derailed during the closing minutes of the 2010 legislative session. An earlier version of the bill had the support of the state’s Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley, and the modified bill failed only after last-minute maneuvering by public school advocates. A similar scheme could resurface this year, even though the state is facing a budget crunch, and funding for public schools has been cut.

Missouri: Vouchers could surface in the Show Me State, where Republicans made gains in November’s elections.

“We need to be taking a look at vouchers,” state Rep. Scott Dieckhaus, (R-Washington), chairman of the House Education Committee, told the St. Louis Beacon.

Other state legislators are skeptical, noting that Missouri’s Constitution contains a provision barring any diversion of public money to religious schools.

New Hampshire: Vouchers could be a big issue in New Hampshire this year, says a state political website called wirenh.com. State Rep. Carol Vita (R-Strafford) has already filed notice that she will introduce a bill that would provide vouchers to pay for private education. A separate proposal offered by Rep. Jerry Bergevin (R-Hillsborough) would go even further, requiring that all state funds spent on education be distributed in the form of vouchers.

New Jersey: Voucher advocate Gov. Chris Christie, who was elected in 2009, has proposed a statewide voucher plan aimed at 20,000 students that is expected to resurface this year. In December, Christie appointed Christopher Cerf, a voucher advocate who promoted charter schools while working in New York City’s public schools, to be education commissioner.

Last year, Christie, a Republican, promoted a $360-million-dollar voucher plan to last five years at a time when deep cuts totaling $1 billion were being made to public education. State legislators balked, and the bill did not receive a vote. The legislation is being carried over into the 2011 legislative session.

New Mexico: Susana Martinez (R), the state’s new governor, has selected Hanna Skandera, deputy commissioner of education in Florida from 2005 to 2007, to head the Public Education Department, reported the New Mexico Independent. Skandera, who advised U.S. Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential run, formerly served as a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute, where she co-wrote a paper lauding Milwaukee’s voucher plan.

Nevada: Newly elected Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) has proposed altering the state constitution to allow for vouchers. Stateline.org, an online publication, reported that Education Superintendent Keith Rheault opposes the idea, asserting it could cost as much as $100 million.

North Carolina: A legislative fight over tuition tax credits is expected in the Tar Heel State. House Majority Leader Paul Stam (R-Apex) has introduced legislation mandating the credits in the past and said he expects the proposal to resurface this year, reported the Raleigh News & Observer.

Stam’s previous bills called for a credit worth $1,250, but a group called Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina is pressing for a $4,000 tax credit for private school patrons.

Ohio: Ohio already has a voucher plan in Cleveland, but the state’s new governor, former congressman John Kasich (R), promoted vouchers on his blog during the campaign. Voucher opponents believe he may try to expand the program to other Ohio cities.

Oklahoma: Education Week reported in December that former Florida governor Jeb Bush had called legislators in Oklahoma and urged them to adopt a voucher program aimed at students with disabilities, similar to the one in his state. Some lawmakers apparently took the advice to heart. Rep. Mike Reynolds (R-Oklahoma City) has introduced a voucher bill, HB 1029, but it would apply to all students, with vouchers pegged at 60 percent of the per-pupil public school expense.

Pennsylvania: The pro-voucher American Federation for Children reported in December that Pennsylvania’s new governor, Tom Corbett (R), is “a stalwart school choice supporter, and both houses of the state legislature have bipartisan champions….” The group also noted that a new political action committee has been launched to press for private school aid.

Corbett called for a voucher plan during the campaign and stacked his education transition team with voucher advocates. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the 34-member team “does not include a single active teacher, district school board member, district administrator or staff member of the state’s two major teacher unions and Pennsylvania School Boards Association.” However, the team did include five members of the executive committee of the REACH Foundation, an outfit that advocates for school vouchers.

State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has vowed to introduce voucher legislation along with Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D-Philadelphia). The two say their bill, which will be the first piece of legislation introduced in the state Senate, will initially be limited to “low-income” students in select school districts deemed “failing.”

South Carolina: New Gov. Nikki Haley (R) was a frequent advocate for vouchers during her time in the state legislature and backed the idea during her campaign. Political observers in the state believe some type of legislation is likely. Howard Rich, a libertarian activist and real estate developer from New York, has reportedly poured thousands of dollars into state legislative campaigns to advance the voucher agenda.

Utah: State Rep. Carl Wimmer (R-Salt Lake) has announced plans to introduce legislation creating a “backdoor” voucher plan in the state. Under Wimmer’s scheme, individuals and business would donate money to be used for vouchers and then receive a tax credit for the donation. Similar programs are already operating in several states.

Wisconsin: Newly elected Gov. Scott Walker (R) has called for expanding Milwaukee’s voucher plan to other communities. A specific proposal hasn’t been offered yet, but Walker told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “I think school choice is successful. I think it’s worth looking at expanding it. How do you do that? There’s really a multitude of options, not only those being discussed in other parts of the country. And we want to continue to be at the forefront of that.”

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Other states may be added to this list as state legislatures come back into session.

Americans United will work to oppose voucher bills wherever they appear. Coordinating with AU’s national office, local AU leaders offer testimony against vouchers in state legislatures and undertake campaigns to educate the public about the dangers of diverting tax aid to religious schools.

Dena Sher, Americans United’s state legislative counsel, warned members to expect a busy year. She urged members to sign up for Americans United’s legislative e-mail alerts to keep current on developments. She also urged them to distribute AU materials to educate people about the harm vouchers cause.

Said Sher, “We know that vouchers undermine religious liberty and don’t improve kids’ education. Our task is to get that message out to state legislators and our fellow taxpayers.”