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Education Reporter

Voucher Update: Many Bills, Few Laws
Florida Court Hears Blaine Amendment Case
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Although at least 17 state legislatures considered bills in 2005 to expand publicly funded vouchers or tax credits for use at private schools, most proposals failed and vouchers remain a matter of small-scale experiments for disadvantaged students in a handful of states.

Utah enacted a limited program for special-needs students in March, but more ambitious voucher measures failed in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas. The Arizona legislature passed a bill authorizing tax credits that businesses could use to direct money to scholarship funds for private schools, but Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed it.

Government voucher programs are already in effect in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and the District of Columbia, and tax credit programs exist in several states. At press time the Florida supreme court was considering a challenge to a Florida voucher program. The challenge is based on the so-called Blaine Amendment that has remained in the state constitution since the late 19th century, banning direct or indirect public aid to religious schools.

Florida is the only state that offers a voucher to any student in a school defined as failing. The program benefits children who attended a public school that has failed state evaluations for two out of four years. Participants decide whether to use their aid at religious or non-religious schools. The private school must accept the voucher as full tuition. Lower courts had ruled the program unconstitutional.

Three separate studies have found that far from hurting public schools, Florida's voucher program results in improvement to public schools. Because public schools spend more money per student than the amount of the voucher, the student's departure leaves the public school with better ratios of resources to the students who remain. In addition, facing new competition, the public schools are spurred into action to raise test scores.

The latest study, by Martin West and Paul Peterson of Harvard University, concludes that Florida's program is much more effective than the federal No Child Left Behind program, which confers a limited right to transfer to other public schools. (See Education Reporter, Mar., May and July 2004 for earlier articles on voucher programs.)

The U.S. Supreme Court held in 2002 that a Cleveland voucher program did not violate the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause, giving a boost to voucher advocates nationwide.

Arizona is seen as a promising arena for a universal voucher program but for Gov. Napolitano's opposition. Average private elementary and middle school tuition in Arizona is $3,700, less than half the average per-pupil public school expenditure of $7,800, according to a survey reported in School Reform News (Mar. 2005).

Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman, an advocate of vouchers since 1955, notes that "Simple literacy, let alone functional literacy, in the United States is almost surely lower at the beginning of the 21st century than it was a century earlier" even though per-pupil spending (inflation-adjusted) has more than doubled since 1970. He believes that "Sooner or later there will be a breakthrough; we shall get a universal voucher plan in one or more states." (Wall Street Journal, 6-9-05)

In a new legal twist on the voucher issue, a group of Georgia parents sued in January to demand vouchers as a remedy for the state's alleged failure to provide an adequate education as required by the state constitution.

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