States Consider Voucher Subsidies While Slashing Public Education Funding

Several states are considering extending tax aid to religious and other private schools – even as they move to cut public school funding.

In late March, the Indiana House of Representatives voted 56-42 to approve a bill that will provide vouchers worth about $5,500 to families deemed moderate and low income. Prior to the vote, voucher advocates held a rally featuring Michelle Rhee, the former superintendent of Washington, D.C.’s public school system.

“We have the opportunity in Indiana today for this state to be leading the charge across the rest of the nation,” Rhee told the crowd.

House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis), who co-sponsored the legislation, told supporters that the plan is about “promoting opportunity – focused tightly on those who have no choice today.”

But critics pointed out that private schools have the only choice about which students to admit. They also noted that studies of voucher plans in other states have shown that they do not boost student achievement.

The vote broke largely along party lines, although four Republicans opposed the measure.

Sen. Brent E. Steele (R-Bedford) drafted a letter to fellow lawmakers outlining his opposition.

Steele noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist Church, a controversial Kansas congregation whose members frequently protest near funerals of soldiers who died while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Steele brought up the possibility of churches like Westboro getting public support.

“We just saw this week the Westboro Baptist Church is recognized as a religious entity that is protected,” Steele wrote. “How would you like your tax dollars going toward educating their children being privately schooled inside their church? I don’t want my tax dollars used to raise a child who is going to want to kill my grandchildren because they are of a different religious belief.”

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels supports vouchers. But even as he pushes the idea, Daniels has told public school officials in the state to expect no increase in public funding this year.

In other news about vouchers:

Ohio: Gov. John Kasich has told public education officials to expect cuts totaling $1.3 billion. As a result, some high school classes might increase to 36 students, and some programs will be cut. Nevertheless, Kasich has called for expanding Ohio’s private school voucher program, which currently has 14,000 students taking part, to 60,000.

New Jersey: Gov. Chris Christie and other legislators are pressing ahead with a plan to implement vouchers in 13 school districts. A state court, meanwhile, has ruled that cuts to public education pushed through by Christie have left the state unable to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to the 1.4 million school-aged children in New Jersey. Christie slashed state aid to public schools by more than $800 million last year.

Pennsylvania: Gov. Tom Corbett has submitted a budget that cuts K-12 education by $550 million. Corbett has recommended that public schools freeze salaries to balance their budgets. At the same time, Corbett and his allies in the state Senate are aggressively pushing a voucher plan that could cost as much as $1 billion.

Colorado: Members of the Douglas County School Board have voted to establish a voucher plan. The board voted unanimously in mid March to approve the “Choice Scholarship Program,” a voucher scheme that would make up to 500 students eligible to receives $4,575 to attend private schools in the 2011-12 school year. A provision was added stating that current private school students who enroll in public school would not be eligible for the voucher money until one year later, and the board also tacked on a provision allowing students to opt out of religious instruction at religion-based schools.