National School Choice Week: Start the Celebrations!

National School Choice Week, running today through Friday, is an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the laws and programs that help parents choose the best educational settings for their children. Until recently, Indiana was mostly a spectator to that celebration. Today, we’re the focus of it due to Indiana’s 2011 laws creating our state voucher program and significantly expanding our charter school and virtual education laws.

It’s not that Indiana was void of school choice prior to 2011. We’ve had a charter school law since 2001 and we passed an educational tax credit in 2009. Both were significant accomplishments that the Indiana Chamber was proud to have helped lead. But both also demonstrate the critical importance of implementation and “minor” policy distinctions.

We were the 38th state in the country to pass a charter school law; but there were high hopes when, shortly after passage, our new law was ranked the sixth best in the country. Some of those hopes have been fulfilled, especially with the tremendous successes of charter schools in Indianapolis, but a policy decision by State Superintendent Suellen Reed almost stopped that hope dead in its tracks.

Despite language in the original law stating explicitly that funds for charter school students would follow immediately from their previous schools to the charter schools where they enrolled, Reed determined unilaterally that funds could not flow to charter schools until January of each school year when the school funding formula is reset.

The result was that charter schools in Indiana would be forced to operate for six months without any state funds, a challenge that no other public school in Indiana has ever faced. Ultimately, the issue was partially resolved through the creation of a state-backed, low-interest loan program, but the 2002 decision remains even today as a significant barrier to charter school growth in the state.

The 2009 Scholarship Tax Credit has faced its own tough challenges. One of the main ones is the low level of Indiana’s credit – just 50% of the donor’s contribution. It may sound generous, but in other states, where similar programs have thrived far better than ours, the programs offer 70, 80 and even 100% credits. Indeed, Indiana’s 50% credit is the lowest of any such program in the entire country.

Today, we celebrate a voucher law, passed in 2011, that has produced the largest first-year participation rate of any voucher law in American history. The celebration continues, as this year’s participation doubled that of the first year. Yet, even that success is tempered by some coming challenges.

Among them, Indiana’s law is the only choice law in the country that bans kindergarteners from participating. As some lawmakers have said, they think it’s a good idea to require parents to first give a “test run” to the local public schools – even when the parents know plenty about their options. Indeed, the suggestion of such “test runs” is directly counter to core philosophy of school choice – that parents are best positioned to determine the best educational settings for their children.

So we celebrate this week, and we will revel in the fact that states around the country are now chasing us – trying now to replicate the tremendous successes that we had in 2011. Those successes are well worth celebrating, but much work remains to be done.

In the next three days, this space will feature the thoughts of three Indiana leaders who have helped make choice a reality in Indiana. Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation, will help put Indiana’s role in a national perspective; Dan Elsener, president of Marian University, will share why choice has been a lifelong passion of his; and Lindsey Brown, executive director of School Choice Indiana, will report on the state of Indiana’s choice options.

We hope you’ll join us in this national celebration and will revel, as we will, in the newly minted attention that Indiana has earned. But as we’ll note in a closing column on Friday, the challenges that remain are more than just policy oriented; in many ways, they sit at the core of our political and policy environments.

Meanwhile, check out the web site for National School Choice Week and look especially for the celebrations and other events that are occurring throughout Indiana. You might even find a celebration near you!

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Derek Redelman is vice president of education and workforce development for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Chalk Up Another Victory for School Vouchers

A rapid expansion of Louisiana’s school voucher program, officially signed into law last week, is the latest in a series of initiatives to expand school choice throughout the country. The Friedman Foundation offers its perspective. Milton Friedman first proposed vouchers in 1955.

Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law today an expansion of Louisiana’s school voucher program, making it one of the largest such programs nationwide.

Vouchers, which allow parents to use government funding for their children’s private school tuition, were first proposed in 1955 by Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, who believed universally available vouchers were the best way to improve education. In 1990, the first voucher program was created in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, though only for low-income families. Last year, Indiana took historic action by making more than half of its student population voucher-eligible. Now, more than half of all Louisiana students will qualify for vouchers.

“States are realizing that school choice works,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Milton Friedman’s legacy foundation. “The more that states can move from limited school choice to universal availability, the greater its benefits will be to those in need. Indiana is witnessing this now. So, too, will Louisiana.”

In Louisiana, vouchers have been available since 2008, but only to New Orleans children and students with special needs in eligible parishes. In the 2012-13 school year, the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program will allow low- and middle-income students statewide to receive vouchers if they are enrolled in public schools graded “C,” “D,” or “F” by Louisiana’s accountability system.

Currently, 18 states, including Louisiana, and Washington, D.C., provide private school choice through vouchers or the tax code. In 2011, called “The Year of School Choice” by voucher supporters, 13 states increased the availability of school choice; eight new programs were created and 11 existing laws were expanded. This year, Florida and Arizona have approved increases to their private school choice programs, while Virginia and New Hampshire—neither of which allow private school choice—have passed scholarship proposals.