School choice is empowering, effective, economical and constitutional

I have this great cartoon picturing two kids strolling along conversing. One says “My Dad just returned from March madness.” Replies the other, “I didn’t know he was a basketball fan.” To which the first responds, “He’s not. He’s a member of Virginia’s General Assembly.” In fact, the upcoming session ends in February this year, but the point is the same. The General Assembly has a narrow window to handle thousands of bills from budget matters to the use of floating duck blinds. All have supporters and opponents and you can bet both sides will work the legislature overtime in advancing their arguments.

One such contest will center on school choice. Like last year, there will be a bill providing tax credits to persons contributing to a scholarship fund to low-income families for private school tuition. It will be vigorously opposed by Democrats and teacher unions. There may be an effort to strengthen Virginia’s anemic Charter School law, one of the weakest in the nation. No charter schools have been approved in Virginia since this statute passed. Efforts to strengthen it will be resisted by the teacher unions. I will offer a constitutional amendment that removes arcane language in our state constitution language that appears in only 12 state constitutions nationwide that prohibits alternatives like vouchers. The opponents of tax credits and charter schools will fight this also.

School choice opponents argue that more money will solve the problems besetting public education, a system that, in reality, has grown bloated, bureaucratic, and slow to innovate. Recall their opposition to the Standards of Learning (SOL) and the arguments that more testing wouldn’t help. Results tell another story. In math, performance improved dramatically from 1998 to 2001, particularly among African-Americans trapped in an environment of low expectations. Among black students, Algebra I passing rates soared from 20 percent to almost 64 percent, Algebra II from 12 percent to 58 percent, and Geometry doubled to 50 percent. Hispanic students saw their SOL pass rate in Algebra II jump from 53 percent to almost 70 percent. The point: the same folks who line up to oppose school choice initiatives strenuously fought Gov. George Allen’s SOL proposals. He prevailed and now more students are passing. Others continue to struggle and school choice may be their last hope.

Interestingly, African-Americans, often supportive of Democrats, overwhelmingly want school choice. In virtually every credible poll, blacks support vouchers or tax credits by almost 70 percent. Yet most Democrat politicians are unalterably opposed to anything but one-size-fits-all education solutions. Fortunately, Republicans are taking the lead in suggesting innovative ways to advance school choice. Why?

First, it empowers parents to make the best choice for their child. I’m struck by the fact that students can take their Pell Grant or GI Bill benefits and choose freely among both public and private universities. The same should be true of elementary and secondary education.

Second, choice works A landmark study by the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation shows that voucher programs in Maine (ranked 12 in achievement by ALEC) and Vermont (ranked 14) produced higher test scores with significant taxpayer savings. Test scores were higher in areas with the greatest possible competition and lower in areas with little or no competition for tuition dollars. Another study by Dr. Christopher Hammons in Maine and Vermont found that as competition increases among high schools, standardized test scores also increase. This is true even when controlling for other factors such as per-pupil spending, poverty, and urbanization.

Third, it saves money. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Virginia spends an average of $6,149 per public school student. Private schools in Virginia do the same job for almost half that amount. ALEC also notes of the ten states that increased per pupil funding over the past 20 years, none ranked among the top ten states academically. Indeed, the studies above found that had Maine and Vermont wanted to purchase the same gain in test scores by increasing per-pupil spending, they would have had to increase spending $909 per-student, or a combined $300 million per-year. That translates to a 13 percent increase in per-pupil spending to achieve the same effect that competition provides for free.

Finally, choice is constitutional. The Supreme Court of the United States agreed this year in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that a Cleveland voucher program was completely constitutional. Said the Justices, “In sum, the Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits to a wide spectrum of individuals defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice. In keeping with the unbroken line of decisions rejecting challenges to similar programs, we hold the program does not offend the Establishment Clause.” ALEC ranks Ohio 16th academically in America. Virginia is 27th.

It is time not only to pursue school choice real choice that Virginians can make for themselves but it is also time to reform Virginia’s constitution to accept innovation. Let’s hope the debate will be adult-like, and leave the March madness to basketball fans.

Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-31, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, was elected to the General Assembly in 2001 and is a member of the House Education Committee. He lives with his family in Woodbridge.

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