If there was a central theme that drove last week’s conference on school choice at Berkeley, Calif., it was the moral imperative of empowering the parent. Not all its participants agreed on how best to accomplish this goal within public education, but if you surveyed the assembly, it’s likely a majority would favor a design of private educational choice that first benefits the poor and disadvantaged.
Yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding an Arizona tax credit scholarship program would seem to provide a blueprint for that design, but many advocates for school choice are so jubilant over the court’s 5-4 ruling that they’re dreaming of bigger plans. “The way forward for the school choice movement is clearer than it has ever been,” our friend and Cato Institute scholar Andrew Coulson writes. “Education tax credits … allow for universal access to the education marketplace without forcing any citizen to subsidize instruction that violates their convictions.”
Coulson is no doubt correct about the future legal viability of private options through tax credit programs. But while some of the judicial pressure may be relieved, the political pressure remains. We certainly have seen encouraging political progress on this front, with choice coalitions that now swell with more Democratic members in Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “To me, a scholarship for poor, struggling schoolchildren is in the greatest tradition of our collective commitment to equal educational opportunity,” wrote Bill Heller, the former ranking Democrat on the Florida House Education Council, in the St. Petersburg Times last year.
I’m not sure Heller would write these lines if the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship he’s supporting here would be universally accessible to students at all income levels. In fact, the glue that holds these coalitions together is their focus on the poorest among us — the children who typically need the greatest help.
I’m not arguing we should coddle Democrats like myself. Rather, the growing bipartisan support is a signal that our policies should liberate the child at risk of failure and whose family cannot afford an alternative to the neighborhood school. The American Center for School Choice, which hosted the Berkeley conference, sought to remind its participants that a market-driven reform agenda has limited political appeal. A system of choice for low-income families, argues the center’s chairman, John E. Coons, is the beginning of a public education system in which ordinary people can share in the decision-making that affects their own lives.
In Florida, a prominent state Board of Education member who started his own charter school, T. Willard Fair, expressed his own concerns last week about universal vouchers. “If every family gets a voucher, then what does it do to all the families that really need the vouchers,” Fair said. “There’s only so much money.”
In the end, the legislation in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that has been embraced by members of both parties is substantively different than the Arizona tax credit scholarship the Supreme Court had considered. Like Florida, these Mid-Atlantic states would means-test their vouchers and tax credit scholarships to benefit low-income students. Additionally, any child receiving the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship must take a nationally norm-referenced test, and those assessment gain scores are reported at the state and school level. Arizona has no similar income thresholds, nor any testing requirements.
Proponents for school choice should enjoy this week’s judicial victory. But they should remember what has led to their limited success and check themselves from diluting the measures that hold the poorest among us as our priority.