Pro- choice agenda  in the united states



With a new pro-choice, pro-market think tank launching in the UK next month, what is the current state of play on pro- choice reforms in the United States?

Economist Milton Friedman claimed, years ago, that it costs less to educate a child with a voucher or privately funded tax credit scholarship than to send him or her to a public school. “Support for free choice of schools has been growing rapidly and cannot be held back indefinitely by the vested interests of the unions and educational bureaucracy,” Friedman wrote in The Post in 1995. “I sense that we are on the verge of a breakthrough in one state or another, which will then sweep like a wildfire through the rest of the country as it demonstrates its effectiveness.” He was actually wrong in his prediction because he underestimated the opposition to the pro-choice agenda from Unions, some local politicians and education boards. Teachers’ groups say voucher programmes only divert money away from cash-starved public school districts. And critics question the wisdom of spending taxpayer dollars on private schools, which don’t have to report test scores or student achievement data.

However, the pro-choice agenda was born out frustration at the number of poorly performing schools, particularly in disadvantaged city areas, where low income parents    were finding their children trapped in conventional  public schools that were  failing to educate students at basic levels, year after year. US politicians and parents could see that the US education system was losing ground to others in international league tables too. School choice advocates believe that all children should have the opportunity to go to better schools ,through access to private schools via opportunity  scholarships (most commonly called school vouchers), special needs scholarship programmes,  and scholarship tax credit programs.

In voucher programmes, education dollars “follow the child,” and parents select private schools and receive state-funded scholarships to pay tuition. Tax credits programmes allow  companies and individuals  to  get tax credits for donating to nonprofit organizations that provide  scholarships for children to attend private schools. Charters are autonomous  public schools, run by educators, members of the  community, universities, or other bodies that are permitted, under their charter,  to  innovate and develop specialized educational programs for students. States with strong charter school laws allow these schools to operate with considerable autonomy, so that they can avoid heavy bureaucracy. Not all States, though,  have strong Charter school laws which has allowed a few poor performers to slip through the quality assurance net.

The country’s first modern voucher programme opened in Milwaukee in 1990. Florida launched one of the country’s first statewide voucher programmes in 1999, which serves special needs students.

Before this year, school voucher and scholarship tax credit programs were operating in 12 states and Washington, D.C., serving nearly 200,000 children, according to the Alliance for School Choice.

Robert Enlow the president and chief executive of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice gives a run down on his blog what has been happening in the States.

Since January this year there have been 18 voucher, tax credit and education savings account programmes  that have been adopted by state legislatures, Congress and one local school board.

Vouchers: Indiana passed the nation’s most extensive voucher programme this spring, offering vouchers to middle-class families earning up to $61,000 with no cap on the number awarded after three years. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed an expansion of the Milwaukee voucher programme this summer. That programme, the nation’s oldest, now will include vouchers for middle-class families earning up to $67,000; a similar program was enacted for Racine.

 Ohio has quadrupled the number of vouchers available to students stuck in failing schools by 2013.

Arizona adopted Education Savings Accounts, a voucher-type programme to cover education costs for special needs children. And Congress reinstated a popular voucher programme for low-income families in the District of Columbia.

Tax credits: Corporations or individuals may donate to scholarship-granting organizations to gain a credit on taxes due in their state. These scholarships help children attend private schools. This year a new tax credit program was enacted in Oklahoma while existing ones were expanded in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Iowa. Florida  lawmakers for example  in 2010 changed the educational landscape by expanding  the state’s scholarship tax credit program from $118 million to $140 million. The amount of money that can be raised for scholarship organizations and donated by individuals and companies varies by state.


Other private choice: In Louisiana, parents who send their children to private schools will be able to write up to $5,000 of tuition per child off their state income taxes, thanks to legislation passed this summer. In Indiana, parents who do the same or spend money home schooling their children will be able to write off up to $1,000 of any educational expenses off their taxes. North Carolina parents of special needs students will earn a tax credit up to $6,000 for educational expenses for their children. All this to encourage more educational options for families.

Charter schools, of course, continue to expand, with high profile take up in Washington DC and New York where they have been central to reforms. The mayor Michael Bloomberg says that the city has  narrowed the gap in high school graduation rates between the races. And the evidence backs that up. While 46.5 percent of all students graduated in four years in 2005, in 2010 almost two thirds – 65.1 percent – did. Black and Latino students remain less likely to graduate than their white and Asian counterparts, but the gap between groups has narrowed over the past five years: from a 23.89 percentage point difference between blacks and white in 2005 to a 17.6 point gap in 2010.

What keeps Charters going is that, if anything, demand for them is growing, particularly within minority communities. New Orleans is the great test bed, of course, for Charters. Most of its schools were wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and almost all its new schools established since, have Charter status are are  being carefully monitored,   and are, irritatingly for opponents,  showing signs of substantive  progress.

Meanwhile ,many States are tightening up procedures for selecting and vetting  Charter operators, and other accountability measures, as not all have performed as well as  the not for profit KIPP chain, and underperformers  self-evidently  serve to tarnish the image and ‘brand’ of the Charter schools movement  .

Certainly the pro-choice agenda has made strides.  But there is still opposition to these developments and legal challenges are not uncommon.  Joel Klein who reformed New Yorks schools and who moved recently to News International (great timing?) is concerned that the momentum for reform is dropping off. With both himself and Michelle Rhee now out of the frame the ranks of the high profile advocates of the pro-choice agenda look a  bit  depleted.

Bill Gates and his Foundation are providing financial clout behind school reforms particularly in seeking to raise the standards of teaching and to bring in reliable performance measurement to help raise standards. The Quality of teachers, getting rid of poor ones and incentivising good ones is now central to the reform agenda in the States. But there are continuing debates over how performance is measured and whether bonuses work.

So the pro-choice advocates seem to think that the direction of travel is good, but they have much more to do and there is no sign that opponents are willing to give ground.

Note; Budget Cuts hit Education –  Of the 47 states with newly enacted budgets, 38 or more states are making deep, identifiable cuts in K-12 education, higher education, health care, or other key areas in their budgets for fiscal year 2012. Even as states face rising numbers of children enrolled in public schools, students enrolled in universities, the vast majority of states (37 of 44 states for which data are available) plan to spend less on services in 2012 than they spent in 2008 – in some cases, much less. At least 23 states have made identifiable cuts in support for public schools. In many cases, these cuts undermine school finance systems that are intended to reduce disparities between high-wealth and low-wealth school districts, so the largest impacts  are likely to be felt in communities that are least able to compensate for the loss of funds from their own resources. For example Kansas cut the basic funding formula for K-12 schools by $232 per-pupil, bringing this funding nearly 6 percent below fiscal year 2011 budgeted levels. Michigan is  another State cutting its  K-12 education spending, it  by $470 per student.


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