Students like Delano Coffy are at the heart of brewing political fights and court battles over whether public dollars should go to school vouchers to help make private schools more affordable.
He was failing in his neighborhood public elementary school in Indianapolis until his mother enrolled him in a Roman Catholic school. Heather Coffy has scraped by for years to pay the tuition for Delano, now 16 and in a Catholic high school, and his two younger siblings, who attend the same Catholic elementary as their brother did. She’s getting help today from a voucher program, passed last year at the urging of GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, that allows her to use state money for her children’s education.
“I can’t even tell you how easy I can breathe now knowing that for at least for this year my kids can stay at the school,” said the single mother, who filed a petition in court in support of the law. The state Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to the law, which provides vouchers worth on average more than $4,000 a year to low- and middle-income families. A family of four making about $60,000 a year qualifies.
For all the arguments in favor of vouchers, there are opponents who say vouchers erode public schools by taking away money, violate the separation of church and state by giving public dollars to religious-based private schools, and aren’t a proven way to improve test scores.
Even among supporters, there’s dissension over whether vouchers should only be offered to low-income students on a limited basis or made available to anyone. There’s also division among black and Hispanic leaders as to whether vouchers help or hurt kids in urban schools.
Many opponents also dislike scholarship programs that provide tax benefits to businesses or individuals for contributing to a fund to pay for private school. They say those programs undermine public schools by keeping tax revenues out of state treasuries, an important source of education dollars.
Fights about using tax dollars to help make private schools more affordable are popping up around the country.
In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal won a victory April 5 with passage of legislation that expands statewide a voucher program in New Orleans as part of broad changes to the state’s education system.
Virginia lawmakers recently passed a bill backed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell allowing a tax credit for contributions to private school scholarship programs, and Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill expanding a similar program. Creating or expanding voucher or certain scholarship programs has been debated in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Ohio, New Jersey, and elsewhere.
But school choice supporters have faced roadblocks, too.
Recently, in Arizona, GOP Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have expanded a law passed last year that created education savings accounts for parents of students with disabilities; the money could cover expenses such a private schooling, virtual programs, or future college costs.