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Reason Foundation

Will a Democrat Please Stand Up?

Looking for someone to help kids stuck in California's failing schools

Lisa Snell
May 28, 2008

Across the nation, Democrats are helping make 2008 a banner year for school choice, allowing parents to select the schools that are best-suited for their kids.

Nationwide, there are now 24 school choice programs in 15 states. In 2008 new choice programs have been enacted in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana. And school choice is a increasingly becoming a bipartisan issue, with three quarters of legislative victories over the past two years resulting because of Democratic support.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry wrote, "I know it may surprise some that I would support a school voucher program, but I am proud to do so."

While Republicans may still be the lead sponsors of most school choice legislation, they are passing new programs with the help of their Democratic colleagues.

In 2006, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) signed a big expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) allowed the creation of a tax-credit scholarship program and signed two new voucher programs into law. In Iowa, a new tax-credit scholarship program gained overwhelming Democratic support and Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) signed it into law. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) signed a $10 million expansion of his state's tax-credit scholarship program which provides disadvantaged children with scholarships to private schools.

In Florida, in 2001, only one Democrat voted for the corporate tax credit program to provide scholarships to low-income children. By 2008, however, when the legislature passed a $30 million expansion of the "Step up for Students" corporate tax credit program for private school scholarships with the help of a third of the Democratic caucus. The program provides scholarships to 20,000 students with about 64 percent Black and Hispanic students. Apparently, the Democrats took note because 13 of 25 members of the state's black caucus and every member of the Hispanic caucus voted for the expansion. The program will now provide students with 5,000 new scholarships to private schools.

In Louisiana a voucher program for New Orleans passed with a large bipartisan majority, 60-42 in the Louisiana House. The New Orleans voucher program would use $10 million in state taxpayer money to pay private school tuition for as many as 1,500 New Orleans children. The legislation is sponsored by Representative Austin Badon, a New Orleans Democrat, in the House and the Senate version is sponsored by Senator Ann Duplessis, also a Democrat.

In New Jersey, the Senate Economic Growth Committee voted to pass S-1607, the Urban Enterprise Zone Jobs Scholarship Act. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Raymond Lesniak, and supported by Newark Mayor Corey Booker, would allow corporations to make tax-deductible contributions to scholarship organizations. The dollars would be used by children in Newark, Camden, Trenton, Elizabeth, Lakewood, Paterson, Orange and Jersey City to attend participating public or private schools of a student's choice.

In March 2008 a Maryland tax credit scholarship program passed the Maryland Senate. The program, which would provide school choice options to disadvantaged children, was sponsored by Democratic Senator Ed DeGrange and would allow corporations that donate up to $200,000 per year to school tuition organizations to receive a 75 percent state income tax credit for their contributions.

Perhaps Maryland State Senator Nathaniel McFadden (D-Baltimore) sums up the new Democratic attitude towards school choice best when he said in support of the Maryland school choice bill that that the Maryland legislature "helps all kinds of industries here with tax credits-big business, horse racing, biotech. . . . If you call the bill a sham, then I am shamming for children today."

Unfortunately, California Democrats are not "shamming" for California children. California Democrats have spurned any opportunity to offer disadvantaged children and their families more access to quality schools.

In April 2008, State Assembly Republicans introduced a package of education reform measures designed to empower California parents to take a greater role in their kids' education. The proposal included bills to allow disability scholarships for special needs children, tax credits for private and home schooling, pupil transfer and tax credits for students in failing schools, and a safe schools guarantee for all California children.

But not one of the bills got out of the Democratic-controlled committees. And not a single Democrat even offered an amendment or an alternative to the school choice proposals.

One of the bills, sponsored by Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks), would have allowed students in failing public schools to attend a public or private school of their choice. You'd think getting kids out of failing schools would be something we could all agree on. The plan was to give a tax credit to parents who choose to leave failing schools for private schools.

But the California Teachers Association, American Civil Liberties Union, California School Boards Association, and Los Angeles Unified School District, all opposed the plan on the grounds that public schools would lose funding if the children - in failing schools - were allowed to leave those schools and participate in the tax credit program.

More than 900 of the state's schools can't even manage to score 600 on the state's academic achievement index--when the minimum standard for passing is 800.

The state also has 90 failing school districts, like Compton where less than 4 percent of eighth graders were proficient in math (6th and 7th grade standards) and less than 10 percent of 11th graders were proficient in language arts in 2007.

The state needs Democrats who are willing to stand up for kids stuck in California's lowest achieving schools. Let these kids leave their failing schools for one that offers them the hope and opportunity that comes with a quality education.

The teachers' union consistently gets solid support from Democrats in Sacramento. And the Democratic Party consistently fights for more money in schools. But who's looking out for the kids? It shouldn't be this hard to find a Democrat who will speak up for, and fight for, children stuck in failing public schools.


Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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