Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Voucher Wars!

Those on both sides of the School Voucher Question are girding their loins for the upcoming election:
Before Utah’s June 27 primary election, a group advocating school choice – using public money to pay for private school tuition – drew up a hit list of at least 11 lawmakers they wanted to oust.

The sole casualty was House Republican David Cox, targeted because of his 2005 vote against a vouchers bill. Another candidate backed by the group, Parents for Choice in Education, won the nomination for an open House seat vacated by an anti-voucher lawmaker – meaning a likely gain of two seats for their cause.

Parents for Choice is hoping for further gains on Nov. 7, joining efforts of well-funded and increasingly politically savvy pro-voucher organizations in other states.

“We think we’ll have even more to cheer about after the elections,” said Nancy Pomeroy, a spokeswoman for Parents for Choice.

Voucher proponents want to give parents a certificate representing cash that can be used to pay tuition at any school, including private schools, or tax credits for attending private school. They say public schools need competition to improve, and that vouchers or tax credits can help a state’s neediest students get out of bad schools.

Opponents, most notably teachers unions, say any vouchers would drain money from the public school system, which is under pressure to improve student test scores under the federal No Child Left Behind Act – standard which don’t apply to private schools.

Twelve states have some type of school voucher or tax credit program, according to the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that supports school choice. This year, it reported, eight states – Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah and Wisconsin – set up new programs or expanded current programs.

School choice is a big election issue in states where voucher plans have been defeated by slim margins in recent years, such as in Utah, South Carolina and Texas.

In all three states, Republicans control the Legislature and governorship. But moderate Republicans joined Democrats to defeat the bills, so school choice advocates focused heavily on the Republican primaries, hoping to get more conservative yes-votes that could get a bill through the legislature.

In South Carolina, Denver Merrill, a spokesman for pro-school choice South Carolinians for Responsible Government, said his group hopes to pick up about 10 seats in the election. “If we can gain those seats then we’ll be able to push this thing over the finish line in the (state) House,” he said.

The movement could also gain momentum from the race for superintendent of education, where pro-voucher candidate Karen Floyd won a five-candidate Republican primary race with 50.5 percent of the vote.

In Texas, San Antonio businessman and millionaire James Leininger spent more than $2 million to try and unseat five House Republicans in the primary. Two of them lost.

School choice is also an issue in several gubernatorial races, with Republican candidates in Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin supporting it. Earlier this month, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) urged election of pro-school choice candidates.

Still, the election tide isn’t necessarily turning in favor of vouchers. Texas Rep. Kent Grudendorf (R), sponsor of Texas’ voucher bill, lost his primary race. Utah Republican Rep. Jim Ferrin, who repeatedly sponsored tuition tax credit bills, also lost.

One complaint about the pro-voucher groups is that some have received substantial funding from out-of-state individuals and groups, in particular Michigan-based All Children Matter, which has supported and donated money to the effort in at least 11 states, including Utah and South Carolina.

The group, run by Betsy DeVos, the wife of Michigan gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos (R), and its state affiliates have also been criticized for running ads on issues unrelated to school choice – or even education.

South Carolina Republican Rep. Bill Cotty overcame a well-funded attack in his primary race against a pro-voucher candidate, during which South Carolinians for Responsible Government sent out mailings that Cotty says misleadingly portrayed him as a big spender in favor of gas tax increases.

“Sometimes there were two to three mailings in the mailbox a day from this group,” Cotty said. “So as you can imagine, I was lucky just to survive.”

But he still isn’t in the clear. A few weeks after the primary, Cotty learned that he has a new opponent in the general election – a conservative who supports school choice is running as an independent. Not too long ago, Cotty said, the gas tax mailings began again.
Want more on school vouchers? Then go to this related story, where it was noted that vouchers were "Slow to Spread."

As a part-time resident of South Carolina, I can affirm the high level of interest in that state for school vouchers that could be used in both public and private institutions.

The Palmetto State has a large number of private schools that have broad-based appeal to both faith-based and non-religious groups. Even Governor Mark Sanford, who proclaims himself to be a fervent supporter of public education, chooses to send his own children to the most exclusive (and expensive) Episcopalian school in the state capital of Columbia.
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