Monday, March 08, 2010

Expansions of State Voucher Programs Gain Momentum

An article in Ed Week about the spread of vouchers, with quotes from John Kirtley and DFER Chairman Kevin Chavous:

The momentum in Florida to expand one of that state's voucher programs is a subtle but significant sign that such programs, which have been anathema to many Democrats, are beginning to win bipartisan support in a number of states.

…"What we've been able to do here in Florida is to erase that disconnect between parents who wanted this kind of empowerment and those that represent them in the legislature," said John Kirtley, a wealthy Tampa-area businessman who is the architect of the state's tax-credit voucher program.

Significant opposition to vouchers remains in Florida—chiefly from the Florida Education Association—but a growing number of Democrats in the Republican-dominated legislature and around the state have begun to shed their opposition to the usually politically polarizing issue, observers say.

It's a remarkable political shift in Florida, where few, if any, Democrats backed three separate voucher programs, including the tax-credit vouchers, when they were launched by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. The state's original program, which provided vouchers to students who attended low-performing public schools, was struck down as unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. ("Fla. Court: Vouchers Unconstitutional," Jan. 11, 2006.)

Forty percent of the families enrolled in Florida's tax-credit voucher program are African-American, while 25 percent are Latino, said Mr. Kirtley, who is the chairman of Step Up for Students, a nonprofit organization he founded to administer the vouchers across much of the state.

All of the students using the tax-credit vouchers are poor.

In the earlier years of the program, Democratic lawmakers who represent most of those families opposed any kind of public funding of private school vouchers, Mr. Kirtley said. One key to changing minds, he said, was the testimony of poor parents whose children have received vouchers.

"When we would present Democratic legislators with the long list of school choice options in Florida, including charters and virtual schools, we'd ask them, 'Why are you against the only one that serves poor people?' " Mr. Kirtley said. "I really think we are getting to the point where Democrats who oppose parental choice for low-income families, or run campaigns on that sort of opposition, run a big risk [of putting their jobs in danger]."

… Voucher proponents say the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program—which serves some 1,300 students from low-income families—is dying a political death with no regard for how the vouchers have worked for students. The administration is pushing for other education measures, such as merit pay for teachers and expansion of charter schools, that are often at odds with the priorities of the national teachers' unions and other public school advocates, and giving up the capital city's voucher program was an obvious trade-off, said one pro-voucher Democrat.

"They've hammered so hard on things like merit pay, teacher evaluations, and charter schools, that I think they thought they had to make this small political concession to the teachers' unions," said Kevin P. Chavous, a former District of Columbia council member who is a distinguished fellow with the Center for Education Reform, a pro-school-choice think tank in Washington.

Mr. Chavous, who advocates for vouchers around the nation, said he hopes an effort by U.S. Sens. Joseph I. Leiberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, to save the Washington voucher program is successful. The senators announced recently that they would seek to authorize continuation of the program in an amendment to existing legislation in the Senate, although the exact vehicle is not yet clear.


Education Week

Published Online: February 25, 2010

Expansions of State Voucher Programs Gain Momentum

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