Just two years ago, some observers were saying that education choice was dead after the crushing defeat of California's school voucher initiative. But vouchers are back.
"There are more serious legislative proposals for school choice than ever before," says Clint Bolick, executive director for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian/conservative public interest law firm. Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas are among the states considering voucher plans. And school choice supporters did well in the last election, gaining control of governorships and legislative seats in states where vouchers had lost narrowly in the past.
Connecticut's proposal would permit school districts to set up their own choice programs. Pennsylvania's Gov. Tom Ridge wants to make vouchers available to families making under $25,000 a year.
The country's only current public voucher program also is planning to expand. During the 1994-95 school year, the Milwaukee program provided 1,500 low-income students with scholarships to attend nonsectarian private schools. Now Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson wants to let students use vouchers to attend religious schools as well. And he would eliminate enrollment caps by 1999.
Removing such restrictions is crucial to the program's success, according to a recent Reason Foundation study. The study compared Milwaukee's public voucher program to the city's privately funded Partners Advancing Values in Education. It found that PAVE students outperform their public voucher counterparts on standardized tests, even though they are from similar backgrounds. The difference, says the study, is choice. PAVE students can choose among 102 private schools, while the public voucher students can choose from only 12.
A federal district court has ruled that Thompson's proposal would violate the First Amendment. But Bolick, who is defending the plan in court, argues that ultimately the Supreme Court will uphold it.
Of course, just because several states are considering vouchers doesn't mean that any will pass. But Janet Beales, education policy analyst at the Reason Foundation and co-author of the Milwaukee study, says that voucher supporters need only one breakthrough to succeed. "All it's going to take is for one state to pass a full-fledged voucher program."