Bipartisan support for school choice grows around the country

Jeff Reed

Proponents of the status quo in education — led by the Nevada State Education Association — have already announced their opposition to Gov. Brian Sandoval's proposal to create a statewide voucher program through a constitutional amendment. A voucher is a government-provided scholarship, which all parents could use to send their children to the school of their choice, including private and religious schools.

Sandoval's recently announced plan would give families at or near the poverty line a voucher worth just over $5,000 per student. The amount of the voucher would decrease, on a sliding scale, to about $2,500 for families who earn 400 percent or more of the poverty line. Excluding capital costs, Nevada currently spends more than $8,000 per student in K-12 education, which means this proposal certainly could produce a financial windfall for the state and localities. A constitutional amendment, however, will take several years to approve.

Although special-interest groups like the public employee unions may oppose it, support for a voucher program need not be partisan. In numerous other states, Democrats and Republicans have shown that school choice is a unifier against the real enemy in this conflict: academic underperformance.

In the past year alone, school-choice programs have expanded across the country in a bipartisan manner and appear likely to grow again this year.

Take Florida, which currently provides scholarships to some 30,000 low-income students whose families are unsatisfied with their public schools. Ten years ago, only one Democrat supported the program. But because of its proven success, a majority of Republican lawmakers, nearly half the Democrats, two-thirds of the Legislative Black Caucus and all but two members of the Legislative Hispanic Caucus supported an expansion of the program in 2010.

Oklahoma became the newest member of the school-choice family last year when it created scholarships for students with special needs. This program allows parents of a student with disabilities to choose if they want a scholarship for their child rather than send him or her to a public school. Again, this was passed in bipartisan fashion, with party-line Republican support in the Oklahoma Senate, bipartisan support in the House and approval by then-governor Brad Henry, a Democrat.

Louisiana last year created its third school-choice program — this one also for students with special needs — with bipartisan support in both its legislative chambers.

School choice almost came to Illinois in 2010, when Democrat Sen. James Meeks, co-chair of Illinois' Legislative Black Caucus and former spiritual advisor to President Barack Obama, introduced a voucher measure for students in Chicago's failing and overcrowded public schools. The proposal, endorsed by the Chicago Tribune, gained Republican and Democrat support but ultimately fell a few votes short.

One school-choice initiative expected to become law this year is Pennsylvania's Opportunity Scholarship and Education Improvement Tax Credit Act. This legislation would expand Pennsylvania's tax-credit-scholarship program, which currently serves 38,000 low-income families, and introduce a voucher option for low-income students in failing public schools. The measure is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Jeff Piccola and Democrat Sen. Anthony Williams.

School choice is gaining ground because it improves educational achievement for students who leave the public school system and for the students who stay in it. Ten high-quality, random-assignment studies have been conducted on voucher programs. Nine found that some or all of the participants benefitted academically from vouchers. Just one found no difference.

Of the 19 empirical studies examining vouchers' impact on public schools, 18 found vouchers improve public schools, and one found no visible impact.

These studies demonstrate why school choice is a national trend, with 22 voucher programs now in place across the country. Put simply, it works.

Democrats and Republicans in Pennsylvania, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma and several other states have set politics aside to do what is right for kids, families and schools: provide access to high-quality, safe and personalized learning environments, and give schools and students the opportunity to succeed.

Nevada's Democrats and Republicans should do the same.

Jeff Wm. Reed is a state programs director with the Foundation for Educational Choice, the school choice legacy foundation of Milton and Rose Friedman, and a contributing writer to the Nevada Policy Research Institute.