ATLANTA— More states than ever before have considered school vouchers this year, driven by resurgent Republicans who see the lagging economy as an opportunity for a fresh push on one of their most contentious education policies.
As of mid-July, at least 30 states had introduced bills that would use taxpayer dollars to send children to private schools, most limited to poor or special needs children, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s compared with nine voucher bills in 2010, just one of which passed — a special needs voucher program in Oklahoma.
And 28 states this year have eyed giving tax breaks to those paying private school tuition bills, which some consider a back-door voucher program.
At least six states have passed voucher or tax credit legislation this year. Some of the programs are based on income, some based on disability, while others are available for anyone who wants to take advantage.
Some of the measures failed, and others are still under consideration as states struggle with budget deficits and GOP lawmakers tout vouchers as cheaper per child than the cost of public schooling.
“I think that there’s long been an interest among Republican legislators, but this year is the first time they’ve gained so many seats in so many states and gained majorities,” said Josh Cunningham with the state legislatures group. “There was a window of opportunity to get these bills passed. It was kind of the perfect timing.”
The spike has revived a long-running debate between conservatives who believe parents should have more options on where children are educated and teachers’ unions, which say vouchers siphon money from cash-starved public schools.
So far this year, the country’s oldest voucher program in Milwaukee has been expanded and Indiana created the nation’s broadest private school voucher program. Arizona launched a voucher program for special needs students.
The program in Washington, D.C., which had been suspended by Congress, was granted funding again this year as part of federal budget negotiations.
Oklahoma created a tax credit for donors who give scholarships to send children to private schools. Ohio expanded its program, quadrupling a cap on how many students at failing schools can receive vouchers from 14,000 to 60,000 and creating a program for special needs students.
Advocates say the public has become more accepting of voucher and tax credit programs.
“People are realizing the sky hasn’t fallen and it’s OK,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis.
Not all states are as welcoming, even some with Republicans in charge of the statehouse. Measures failed in Mississippi, Texas and Montana. Georgia lawmakers this spring voted down a bill that would have expanded the state’s voucher program, which covers special needs students, to include military families and children in foster care.
In Georgia, even conservative state lawmakers said they worried about expanding any state programs in a year when $1 billion in spending had to be slashed.
And in Indiana, where any child in a family of four earning less than $60,000 a year will get a voucher, educators and clergy are suing to have the law blocked.
Before this year, school voucher and scholarship tax credit programs were operating in 12 states and Washington, D.C., serving nearly 200,000 children, according to the Alliance for School Choice.
Teachers’ groups say voucher programs only divert money away from cash-starved public school districts. And critics question the wisdom of spending taxpayer dollars on private schools, which don’t have to report test scores or student achievement data.
“The reason that vouchers had subsided as a point of advocacy is because they don’t work,” said Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. “The real issue is how do we ensure all public schools are great schools and safe schools?”
The country’s first modern voucher program opened in Milwaukee in 1990. Florida launched one of the country’s first statewide voucher programs in 1999, which serves special needs students.
Ohio, Utah, Louisiana and Georgia followed. In some states, when lawmakers met opposition in creating an outright voucher program, they established the tax credits.
There was a lag in recent years in the number of bills introduced in states, but as the economy worsened and states had to cut hundreds of millions in spending, voucher advocates jumped at the chance to shepherd languishing bills through the legislative process.
Cunningham predicted that next year could see even more states pass voucher and tax credit legislation.
“A lot of times you see states introduce bills, but it takes time to work out language to gain enough support,” Cunningham said.