Commentary

Break-Through in School Choice

Utah has just approved the nation’s first universal school choice program, and in New York, Eliot Spitzer has become the first Democratic governor to propose a private school choice program in his state budget. These two firsts are a major shot in the arm for education reform, and they offer a glimpse of the possibilities to come.

With the Utah House voting 38-37 and the Utah Senate voting 19-10, the Republican-dominated Legislature passed the nation’s first general — rather than targeted — school choice program, and Governor Huntsman, a Republican, signed it into law on Monday. There’s still a long way to go until this program has a chance to mature into something that will revolutionize education. Private schools will be concerned that the political tides might turn against the program, and even with certainty that the program will stay, it will take time for them to respond to families’ demands.

Caveats aside, Utah has breached a major barrier to real education reform. Past programs, like those in Wisconsin and Ohio, have targeted small, special populations such as children with disabilities or low-income children. Utah’s is the first program to treat school choice as a general education reform that can and should help all citizens. Every family deserves a real choice of schools, all children deserve an education that works for them, and all taxpayers deserve control over how their education dollars are spent.

Unfortunately, the Utah victory shows that Democrats are still strongly opposed to vouchers, and Republicans remain ambivalent. Not one Democratic legislator voted for the voucher bill, and only an overwhelming Republican majority allowed it to pass. But a hefty 31% of Republican representatives voted “nay” with the Democrats.

Fortunately, another recent turning point provides hope that the political problems of school choice can be substantially mitigated. Governor Spitzer proposed a tax deduction for private school tuition in his 2008 budget. At $1,000, the deduction is very small, but it’s a huge political break-through.

Mr. Spitzer is a savvy and popular Democratic politician, and some see him as a future presidential contender. Last year, he expressed his opposition to school vouchers but said, “I support the idea of education tax credits.”

And Mr. Spitzer now supports tax deductions in fact. From a major Democratic politician with national ambitions, this is real movement.

Mr. Spitzer’s support provides evidence — the Democratic state of Rhode Island passed a school tax-credit bill last year — that education tax credits can lower the admittedly massive political barriers to full school choice. States without Republican supermajorities need to pursue school choice policy with the broadest support and best chance in court, especially if they hope to pass school choice legislation with broad coverage and real benefits for all citizens. In most states, that means education tax credits, which more moderate Republicans and Democrats support and state courts have upheld.

If Mr. Spitzer’s modest tax deduction passes, it will show that the school choice issue is politically viable in New York and establish a new negotiating base for the growing movement for educational freedom. It will encourage grassroots supporters and provide leverage for their representatives, who will be able to adapt and expand the law in years to come.

The barriers to school choice remain high, but the routes around and through them are increasingly clear. Now that the seal has been broken, supporters should push for programs that allow all families to choose where their children are educated. It’s only natural, and as Utah and New York have shown, it’s time.

Adam Schaeffer is a policy analyst for the Center for Educational Freedom.