'Choice' schools OK testing, not open enrollment

Posted Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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norman Between now and the Legislature's scheduled May 27 adjournment, Texas will almost surely see its most extensive push ever for sending students to private schools with state-arranged financing.

Voucher bills have received plenty of legislative discussion in the past, but they've all been killed.

This year, the conservative push for "school choice" is stronger than ever, and the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee is its lead proponent.

It's important that vouchers, which are grants of state money to parents who want to move their students from public to private schools or who have already done so and want help in paying the bill, are no longer the favorite "school choice" financing vehicle.

"Tax-credit scholarships" are preferred. That's what Education Committee chairman Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, apparently wants.

Start with an existing tax, in this case the state franchise tax, and let taxpayers, in this case Texas businesses, pay some of it to a non-profit organization that awards private school scholarships.

The business gets a tax credit, the student goes to private school, and the school gets at least part of its normal tuition paid by the non-profit.

Arizona established the nation's first tax credit scholarship program in 1997.

It's a crucial distinction that the tuition is not paid by the state. That's one of the ways a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case from Ohio allows states to send students to religious schools and still avoid First Amendment church/state conflicts.

States usually set ground rules for these programs, and the rules they pick are all-important.

When the expected legislative debate starts in Austin, the proposed ground rules for a Texas plan will determine not only whether a bill gets passed but also whether any approved program will succeed or fail.

That's backed up by a report issued this week from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an independent education-reform advocacy organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and in Ohio.

It's pretty simple: School choice programs work, the report says, only if private schools decide to participate.

Fewer schools will join in if the ground rules are too burdensome.

And some rules are worse than others. The report comes from an extensive study of 13 voucher and tax credit scholarship programs in 11 states, as well as surveys of participating and non-participation private schools under city programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland and state programs in Ohio and Indiana.

One clear result was a surprise: Required participation in statewide testing and school accountability isn't as big a negative factor as was once thought.

More important for schools is that they have no interference with their selective admission requirements (no open enrollment) or, for church-sponsored schools, required student participation in religious activities.

Paperwork burdens are also a big deal and could cause some schools to opt out, the report says.

Catholic schools are significantly more likely to participate in school choice programs than other private schools, perhaps because enrollment in Catholic schools has been declining for almost 50 years and many need the school choice money to survive.

It's just the opposite for secular schools, where enrollment has grown and tuition rates are higher.

Still, many schools subsidize tuition for school choice students in order to fill a few seats that otherwise would provide no revenue at all.

The report's bottom line is that states should seek a "bare minimum" of ground rules. After all, it says, "it would seem counterproductive to require private schools to become less 'private' in order to participate in school choice programs."

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.

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Twitter: @mnorman9

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