April 25, 2011

Easter Monday is a good day to celebrate a resurrection story — in this case, the resurrection of a movement to rescue children trapped in failing public schools.

In a little-heralded achievement, House Speaker John Boehner used the recent spending negotiations to restore school choice in the District of Columbia — bringing back to life a program that President Obama and congressional Democrats had killed two years before. Despite the fact that students with D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program achieved graduation rates of 91 percent (more than 30 points higher than their D.C. public school peers), teachers unions and their allies in Congress were determined to smother the program in the cradle. They knew that if school choice was successful in our nation’s capital, it would strengthen those fighting to establish similar programs across the country, and demand could spread like a brush fire.

The Republican Revolution of 2010 upended their plans. Indeed, the massive GOP gains not only allowed Boehner to rescue the D.C. program, they have helped set off that school-choice brush fire in the states. According to the Republican State Leadership Committee, the GOP picked up a record 690 seats in state legislatures across America last November and took governorships from Democrats in 10 states. Now, many of these newly empowered GOP state officials are pushing to create or expand school-choice programs across the country.

In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Republican legislators are in the final stages of enacting a bill to establish what could become the largest school voucher program in the country. The state Senate passed the bill last Thursday, and the GOP-controlled House is expected to take it up as early as this week — which means school choice could soon become law in Indiana.

Not to be outdone, in Ohio Gov. John Kasich (whose state currently has the nation’s largest school voucher program) has introduced a budget that would more than quadruple the number of vouchers available to Ohio students. With Republicans now in control of both houses of the state legislature, Kasich’s request stands a strong chance of approval.

In Pennsylvania, new Republican governor Tom Corbett is pushing a bill to create the state’s first school voucher program that will help not only low-income but also middle-class children attend private and parochial schools. Last week, busloads of children and parents descended on the state capitol to support the bill’s passage, which Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled Senate is expected to vote on as soon as this week.

In Wisconsin, new Republican Gov. Scott Walker is pushing legislation to expand the nation’s oldest school voucher program beyond Milwaukee, eliminate the cap on the number of students that can be enrolled and phase out income eligibility requirements. The GOP-controlled legislature began hearings on the bill last week. If Walker stands as firm on school choice as he did on collective bargaining, his proposal should become law.

Some states are taking school choice a step further, replacing vouchers with state-funded education savings accounts. With ESAs, parents of qualified children get full control of the money, which they can use to pay for private or parochial schools, home-schooling or tutoring services, or even invest in college-savings plans. In Arizona, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer recently signed a revolutionary law creating “Arizona empowerment accounts” for special-needs children. And in Florida, the state Senate approved legislation this month championed by new Republican Gov. Rick Scott that will create ESAs worth about $3,100 for all Florida students.

This is not to say that school-choice opponents are giving up. In New Jersey, for example, they are fighting Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed the Opportunity Scholarship Act which would offer vouchers to as many as 40,000 low-income public school students. Unlike many of his fellow Republican governors, Christie must get the bill though a Democratic-controlled legislature, where teachers unions are lobbying tirelessly to kill it. But in states where voters have given Republicans greater control, school choice is making a comeback that was unimaginable just a few months ago. Says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, these “governors and legislatures are actually getting to the hard work of education reform that was previously stalled by special interests and apathy.”

When congressional Democrats killed D.C. Opportunity Scholarships in 2009, the word in education circles was that school choice was passe and that the wave of the future was Obama’s Race to the Top program. No one is saying that any longer. The resurrection of school choice may not be The Greatest Story Ever Told. But for the children who will be liberated from failing public schools, it’s a life-changing story nonetheless. And that is something worth celebrating this Easter season.

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the book “Courting Disaster” and writes a weekly column for The Post.