Education Should Come Before Ideology, Politics

From coast to coast, families, because of their ZIP code, have little choice but to send their children to the failing and sometimes dangerous government schools in their neighborhood.

Those with the means to do so —like most members of Congress —can free their children from these failing schools. Those of more modest incomes are not as fortunate —unless, that is, they live in one of the increasing number of states allowing and encouraging school choice.

Many state leaders have realized the injustice of the current system and are beginning to give the people the freedom of choice that they want in education. The U.S. Congress, as long as it continues to usurp state authority over education, should do its part to further these efforts.

Three congressmen — each from states with strong school choice laws — have introduced legislation to do so. Rep. Mark Green, R-Wis., introduced a bill last spring to provide tax credits for donations to scholarships for low-income students, and Reps. Phil English, R-Pa., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz., have introduced similar bills for tax credits for businesses donating to scholarship funds. These congressmen have seen that the families in their districts who have tasted educational freedom are hungry for more, another case of good policy being good politics.

A great example of the transformative power of allowing parents to decide which school their children attend is Arizona. A corporate tax-credit scholarship program, passed in early 2006, has been expanded from a cap of $5 million per year to $10 million, and the cap will now grow by 20 percent every year until 2010, when it will reach about $21 million.

This is in addition to a personal income tax credit which already provides scholarships worth $28 million a year to 21,000 students.

Arizona’s reform has been popular across the state. A survey by the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, the Alliance for School Choice and the Goldwater Institute found that a majority of Arizonans support giving families more educational opportunities and that all voting groups are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports school choice than one who is against it.

Robert C. Enlow of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation says “Arizona exemplifies what is happening in every school choice state — when some families get educational freedom, all families want it.”

Arizona is far from the only state to see the wisdom of freeing children from the chains of school-by-ZIP-code. Both Pennsylvania and Florida also give tax credits for donations to tuition scholarship organizations, with Pennsylvania expanding its credit program to benefit more than 33,000 students. In 2005 33 states introduced either scholarship tax credit or voucher legislation in their legislatures.

Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Rhode Island, Utah and Wisconsin this year all passed targeted school choice bills — Arizona, Iowa and Wisconsin with Democrat governors. In Iowa a bill allowing personal tax credits for gifts to scholarship organizations passed the Senate 49-1 before being signed into law.

A growing number of Americans across political party divides are coming to realize that it is illiberal and immoral that students who are not getting the education they desire from the government school they are forced to attend by virtue of their parent’s street address.

The tragedy and suffering of Hurricane Katrina victims brought this message home to Congress. Before the storm, the New Orleans public-school system had been failing its kids for years.

Fully 73 of its more than 120 schools are considered to be “failing” according to the state’s educational accountability standards. On one 2004 measure, the GEE test of high school students, 96 percent of Orleans Parish students were below basic level in English and 94 percent were below basic level in math.

Congress provided vouchers to 157,000 students displaced by the storm to attend public or private schools. Ted Kennedy, noted partisan, summed it up best by saying “This bill puts the interests of the children victimized by Katrina ahead of politics and ideological battles.”

It’s time for Congress to pass a bill that puts the rest of the children in the country ahead of politics and ideological battles.

Max Pappas is Director of Policy for, a Washington, D.C.-based citizens advocacy group.