Choice Moves


Education policy is jammed up in Washington. But in the states, the proper province of such policy, it was a busy spring, especially for those who want to infuse the K-12 system with a bit of choice.

The Florida legislature passed a statewide scholarship program in late April as part of a broader package to improve the Sunshine State's government schools. Like the students they house, each of Florida's schools will now receive a letter grade based primarily on student test scores. Students assigned to a school that fails in two out of any four years will be eligible for an "opportunity scholarship" worth up to $4,000 to pay for private education, including religious schools. Next year, students from two schools already designated as "low-performing" will be eligible. By fall 2000, as many as 156,000 students from 169 schools will be eligible, according to Florida's Department of Education.

In May, Illinois followed in the footsteps of Arizona, passing an education tax credit. Illinois taxpayers will be able to take $1 off their tax bills for every $4 they spend on private or public education, up to a credit of $500.

The news wasn't all good, as courts proved less enthusiastic about choice than did legislatures. Both the Maine Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit ruled that Maine, under a voucher program more than two centuries old, couldn't pay for parochial or other religious-based schools.

In May, the Ohio Supreme Court handed down a mixed decision that may send 4,000 low-income Cleveland students back to the very government schools they fled. The court ruled that Cleveland's 3-year-old scholarship program, which allows children to attend private religious schools using tax dollars, didn't violate the First Amendment–a big victory for scholarship proponents. The same ruling, however, invalidated the program, since it had been passed as a rider to a budget bill. According to the decision, that violated the state's "single-subject rule," which prohibits dissimilar items from passing in the same bill. Unless the legislature passes legislation reauthorizing the program, there will be no money for scholarships next year. "I could jump off a bridge right now," Elizabeth Henry, whose daughter attends a Catholic school through the program, told The Columbus Dispatch. "This program means everything to us."