School voucher bills flood GOP-led statehouses

Teachers' groups say voucher programs only divert money away from cash-starved public school districts.

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.

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