It’s About the Children

It is the mantra of nearly every organization associated with education and nearly every politician in America. It’s repeated so often that it’s a wonder anyone actually pays attention to it anymore.

“It’s about the children.” For many, it is indeed a true calling and a point of fact. And what, beyond shelter, nourishment, spiritual guidance and love, is more important to the children than their education. For it is through a child’s education that they are offered hope and opportunity for the future.

And who decides how a child should be educated? Who has their best interest at heart? Who understands not only their educational needs but also their educational capacity? Who is best suited to make important decisions about how, what, when and where a child will be educated?

In Virginia, all of those questions are answered by one thing – the location of the child’s house. While educators can wax eloquently about the benefits of this education program or that, the fact of the matter is the school your child attends depends almost entirely on where you live. Your child attends the school that he or she is assigned to attend based not on their needs or the school’s ability to meet their needs, but simply on your address.

At The Family Foundation, it is our belief that the system of “education by location” is not always in the best interest of the child. While most Virginia families are quite happy with their assigned public school, many would choose otherwise. In fact, in a 2009 poll of Virginia families, the survey found that 62 percent of Virginians believe the public school system is “good” or “excellent.” However, when given the choice between sending their child to a public school or an alternative (private, charter or homeschooling) 54 percent said they would choose the alternative. Among parents with children currently attending a public school, 40 percent would keep their children there while 39 percent would choose an alternative. Currently, 90 percent of Virginia’s school children attend public schools.

Another interesting note, is that the survey found that younger Virginians, those just out of school or in parenting years, are more supportive of education choice than older Virginians. In other words, those closest to the public schools are less likely to want their children to attend them.

For nearly two decades, The Family Foundation has been fighting to give parents exactly that choice only to have been met with enormous resistance from the education establishment in Virginia – particularly the Virginia Education Association (VEA). Even the most modest proposal – a tax credit for donations to organizations that provide scholarships for children – has met with massive resistance.

In Virginia, the state Constitution prohibits one form of education freedom – vouchers. Vouchers are direct payments to private schools on behalf of children. Virginia does, however, allow for an alternative to vouchers – tuition tax credits. Tax credits would be granted to families that choose to pay tuition at a private school. Parents who pay taxes to local public schools but do not use them would receive a modest tax credit.

Functionally, the difference between tax credits and vouchers is who cuts the check. Under a tax credit system, Parent A writes a check to Private School X for tuition and then come tax day, Parent A deducts the amount paid in tuition from his total tax liability. Simply, Parent A is allowed to deduct for the expense Parent A spared the state/locality by providing alternate education for his child. Under a voucher system, if Parent B chooses to send his child to Private School X, the government sends a check to Private School X for the value of the expense Parent B spared by providing alternate education for his child. In these examples, both children go to Private School X and the cumulative tuition required of Parent A and Parent B is the same; however, the crucial difference is who cuts the check. When the government writes a check to a private school, it is that much more likely that the government will feel the right to regulate the private school. The government may want to dictate school admission policies, non-discrimination policies, testing standards, sex education curriculum, and so forth. While producing effectively the same incentive for parents to choose the best educational opportunity for their child, vouchers come with many more potential hazards.

The Family Foundation has advocated for tuition tax credit bills in the General Assembly in the past few years. Most recently, The Family Foundation has supported Delegate Jimmie Massie and Senator Mark Obenshain with their respective school choice bills (HB599 and SB133). Both bills would have created a tax credit for individuals or corporations who donate to scholarship foundations that in turn give scholarships to students toward private school tuition.

In this past legislative session, Senator Obenshain’s bill died early in session, but HB 599 was ingeniously crafted in such a way as to ensure there would be no fiscal impact to the state – something valuable in today’s economy and something that not many tax credits can boast. In addition, local school systems would actually save money as students leave their schools, but the federal share of the money does not decrease. Consequently, per pupil spending would increase while families receive choice. Nonetheless, HB599 ended in defeat in the Senate Finance committee.

School choice is the fiscally responsible answer for today’s economic climate. A recent University of Virginia study reports that by the 2014-2015 school year, an estimated 50,000 additional students (4 percent growth) will be enrolled in Virginia’s public schools. 85 percent of this growth is predicted to occur in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun alone.[i] In today’s economic climate, growth of this magnitude will be a significant strain on government resources given current education deficits.

Former advisor to President Bill Clinton and current FOX News commentator Dick Morris believes that school choice is the answer to this looming problem. Morris predicts state government will transition to a system in which they are investing in alternatives to public education that give a greater return on their dollar. Morris comments, “The irony is, we who want to bring big changes to our nation’s schools and bring quality education are ultimately going to win, not so much because of our arguments about quality and reform, but because of cost … The first thing that’s going to hit (new state lawmakers) square in the face when they take office is how they’re going to pay for the huge education deficits they’re going to face. And they will say to the public school systems, ‘We’re not going to put money into $12,000 per kid in public schools. Instead we’re going to invest in $7,500 per kid vouchers, charter schools, cyber schools, and all of the other options. And we’re going to get a better school for it.’ Cost implications will drive the kind of changes we want to bring about.”

Florida provides a good example of the fiscal benefit of school choice. This past year, Governor Charlie Crist signed into law a significant expansion to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program – similar in its original structure to Delegate Massie’s HB599. Florida’s new law raises the scholarship program cap from $118 million to $140 million and provides for an annual increase of 25 percent. In the past year, $100 million was donated resulting in scholarships for 27,700 students. It is anticipated that at the conclusion of 10 years, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program will raise $1.3 billion and impact 8 percent of Florida’s students and at the conclusion of 15 years, raise $4 billion and impact 25 percent.[ii]

The fiscal results from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program are compelling. In 2001, the bill received only one Democratic vote. The vote for expansion this past year garnered nearly 100 percent of the Republican caucus, 42 percent of the Democratic caucus, and 52 percent of the black caucus. Why? The Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability reports that $1.49 is saved for every $1 provided in tax credits under this school choice program. The Florida Senate Ways and Means committee finds that projected savings for the program over the next four years are $20 million.[iii] Not only is school choice academically responsible, it is fiscally responsible.

Florida is not alone. Tax credits for scholarship programs and tuition tax credits as proposals are gaining popularity across the country. Several states, including Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia, Iowa and Indiana, have programs in place. Because of initial popularity and success, in many cases these programs are being expanded even during difficult economic times.

While opposition from the teachers unions and education establishment continues to grow, many political leaders that once opposed progressive forms of education freedom are now carrying the banner of education choice. In particular, African American political leaders in Florida, Washington, D.C., and other states that once fought vehemently against education freedom are witnessing its amazing success – and have transformed their thinking. In Virginia, one of the most compelling testimonies in favor of school choice came from a former black panther, Alberta Wilson.

Despite this momentum, political leaders, particularly in the state Senate, continue to hold onto archaic arguments against freedom. Opponents to the bill implied over and over that efforts to provide educational freedom for low and moderate-income families were racially motivated. Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that the children who are suffering most from poor government schools are African American children in urban areas. Eighty-five percent of public schools are 95 percent comprised of one race. Zip codes, similar to school districts, ensure this stratification. Public schools are one of the most segregated institutions in the U.S. Conversely, private schools are diverse both racially and economically.[iv] Parents do not need to choose a school within their district or zip code. Often the school’s strengths (i.e. – special education, ESL or a faith perspective) encourage racial and economic diversity because students are drawn to the school for other reasons. When school choice was implemented in Washington, D.C., the number of students attending a racially homogeneous school decreased from 85 percent to 47 percent.[v]

As the debate over education freedom in Virginia has progressed it has become clear that opposition is not “about the children” – it’s about the money. Not the money per pupil, because we have already proven we can increase per pupil spending with the scholarship program while reducing class sizes. It is about the total sum of money the education establishment receives – and it is an insatiable mistress.

While the hostility toward educational choice this past session was disturbing, it was also indicative that legislators were beginning to feel the heat! Just two years ago, school choice bills didn’t even register a motion in Senate Finance. This year, they generated heated responses. The pressure they feel comes from growing support in the populace.

In December of 2009, The Family Foundation and the Virginia Catholic Conference received results from our commissioned Mason Dixon poll, which found that 69 percent of Virginians support tax credit proposals similar to what Delegate Massie and Senator Obenshain have introduced. Support regionally ranged from 62 percent in Hampton Roads to 70 percent in Northern Virginia to 74 percent in Southside and Southwest Virginia.

The results of this poll mirror the results of another survey taken a few weeks earlier specifically in Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk neighborhoods where voters in the Democrat primary voted more than 80 percent for Barack Obama. That poll found nearly the identical support for this type of proposal.

I’ll say it again as I’ve said before – school choice is coming to Virginia! It might not be this year, it might not be next year, but it is coming. Virginia families are demanding it.

In the meantime, I would encourage you to assist in advocating at the state level for increased educational freedom. Find out how your delegate and senator votes regarding school choice issues and hold him or her accountable during session. Email your legislators. Explain to them why you support school choice and that you will be watching how they vote on these important issues. And then, watch how they vote and respond accordingly. It is vitally important that legislators hear from concerned constituents.

The Family Foundation is on the cutting edge of educational freedom advocacy in Virginia. Building on our 25 years of experience of education legislative reform, The Family Foundation continues to build a convincing case for school choice in Virginia. We will not relent until Virginia families are given the opportunity to freely choose the best educational option for their children. We look forward to you joining us in this battle for educational freedom. Visit our Web site (www.familyfoundation.org) for more information on getting involved.

By Victoria Cobb

[i] “Study: Virginia Public School Enrollment to Grow.” The Washington Post, June 30, 2010. Available at:

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/local-breaking-news/virginia/study-va-public-school-enrollm.html?hpid=newswell

[ii] Adam B. Schaeffer, “Florida’s Unheralded School Revolution.” Cato Institute, April 30, 2010. Available at: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=11734

[iii] Adam B. Schaeffer.

[iv] Michael Van Beek, “School Choice Myths.” Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Midland, MI. June 3, 2010. Presentation.

[v] Jay Greene and Marcus Winters, “An Evaluation of the Effects of D.C.’s Voucher Program on Public School Achievement and Racial Integration After One Year,” Manhattan Institute, January 2005.