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There's More to School Choice Than Vouchers

March 16, 2010

Discussions on school choice in Illinois are currently focused on the Rev. Sen. James Meeks' school voucher bill and the use of public funds to pay for children from failing schools to be educated in private schools.

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Discussions on school choice in Illinois are currently focused on the Rev. Sen. James Meeks' school voucher bill and the use of public funds to pay for children from failing schools to be educated in private schools. But the debate – and proposals from legislators – shouldn't stop there. School choice isn't just about vouchers and failing schools, it's about making a wide range of educational options available to parents.

In addition to the restricted vouchers proposed by Sen. Meeks, other vouchers could target the needs of special education students. A tax credit for donations to scholarship organizations would encourage the development of privately funded school choice programs. A wider choice of public schools could be made available by allowing more charter schools and by permitting open enrollment across school district boundaries. Individual tax credits and property tax rebates would support choice and mitigate the double payment burden of parents who choose a non-public education for their child.

School choice is about giving parents the freedom to choose from a wide menu of educational options rather than being limited to the set of options deemed appropriate by local school administrators. Currently, children are compelled to attend a tax-supported public school unless their parents pay for a private school. School choice lets parents select which school will receive the funds allocated for educating their child.

Sen. Meeks' voucher proposal is not a panacea. But just as one size does not fit all in public schooling, one size does not fit all in school choice, either. Parents need a variety of options to choose from, and a single school choice bill cannot possibly address all those needs. But different programs could be designed to serve different purposes, namely:

Open enrollment would provide more choices for parents who want their children to remain in public schools. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, families can choose public schools across district boundaries without financial penalty.

Charter schools also would provide more choices within the public school system. Families in Arizona, California, and Michigan have many more charter schools available to them than families in Illinois.

An individual income tax credit for educational expenses already is available in Illinois, but it covers only 25 percent of expenses and is capped at $500 in total. By comparison, Minnesota's education tax credit allows up to $1,000 per child and Louisiana's educational tax deduction allows up to $5,000 per child.

Scholarship tax credits allow corporations and families to support private educational efforts by directing part of their tax liability to organizations that provide scholarships to private schools. Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania have well-established programs of this kind. Both scholarship and individual tax credits help support homeschoolers and private schools who are concerned about additional regulations that may accompany vouchers.

An individual property tax rebate for the amount paid in local education-related property taxes should be available to parents who send their children to a private school. This rebate would address the troubling issue of government suppression of First Amendment "Free Exercise" rights for parents who currently have to pay twice for education when they choose a religious school for their child. The rebate would include renters, who pay property taxes via their rent.

Special education vouchers are available for special needs students in Florida and allow parents to place their child in an alternative educational setting, using the full amount of funding the child would have received in the public schools. More than 20,000 students in Florida participate in this program.

School vouchers should be available to all children, not just those in failing schools. The voucher should be worth at least 75 percent of per-pupil public school spending, have an add-on option, and be phased in by local public school performance – worst first, as in Sen. Meeks' plan.

Expanding school choice has many benefits: Devolving decision-making authority from school officials to parents gives citizens better control over the government of their schools. Having a variety of different schools strengthens communities by attracting a diverse resident population. Best of all, school choice increases freedom.

George A. Clowes is a Senior Fellow for Education Policy at The Heartland Institute, a 25-year-old public policy organization based in Chicago.

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Education
Author
George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding managing editor of School Reform News between November 1996 and January 2005.
clowesga@aol.com