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School Choice Takes Off

By Dick Komer

What a difference a year makes! Or perhaps more accurately, what a difference an election makes.

The 2010 elections brought in a new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, where the new Speaker of the House John Boehner threw his considerable influence behind efforts to revive the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which President Obama and the previous Democrat-dominated Congress had condemned to death by attrition. Speaker Boehner made reauthorization of the program a demand in the budget negotiations that nearly resulted in a government shut-down, and when the President signed the budget compromise, it renewed the program for five years.

Even more importantly for school choice, because education is primarily a state responsibility, the changes wrought by the 2010 elections at the state level have catalyzed efforts to provide parents with greater educational freedom. Combined with the increasing willingness of Democrats—particularly minority Democrats—to buck the teachers’ unions, the ascendancy of new legislators committed to education reform through empowering parents has resulted in the most intense legislative season for school choice ever.

Already this year, three remarkable programs have broken new ground for the school choice movement. Arizona has created a program of educational savings accounts for Arizona families with children with special needs that provides them with the ability to control the education their children receive. The local school board for Douglas County, Colo., has created a scholarship program that enables up to 500 families to select a non-district school for their children’s educations, including private schools. And Indiana enacted what could grow into the largest school choice scholarship program in the nation. IJ expects all three programs to be challenged in court and is preparing to intervene in those lawsuits to defend parents’ right to choose the best available education for their children.

More state legislatures are considering school choice programs than ever before, and IJ’s legislative counseling efforts have extended to more states than ever before. In just the past few months, we have helped more than 20 states carefully examine their choice options. Among those, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are considering major new programs or expansions of existing programs, with a good chance of enactment thanks in part to the election of pro-school choice governors. States like Alaska and Tennessee, which have never introduced school choice legislation, have gotten on the bandwagon, and more serious efforts than ever have occurred in other states like New Mexico and Montana.

Many of these new efforts involve tax credit scholarship programs, in which the state allows taxpayers to take tax credits for contributions they make to organizations awarding scholarships to students for use at private schools. IJ’s April 4 victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the Court held that taxpayers cannot challenge Arizona’s personal income tax credit, renders more difficult the usual suspects’ ability to challenge such programs. IJ expects that additional state programs will join the existing ones in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, all of which will continue to grow and serve ever greater numbers of families. In fact, since this article was first drafted, Oklahoma has passed a tax credit program.

In short, although the year is not even half over, 2011 is proving a banner year for school choice. And with school choice providing a cost-effective means of educating children while states nationwide face severe budget difficulties, choice is advancing more rapidly than ever before. It is no wonder the Institute for Justice’s school choice team is busier than ever, celebrating victories, preparing for litigation and helping additional states harness parental choice to reform American education.

Dick Komer is an IJ senior attorney.

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