July/August 2005 Church & State | People & Events

Proponents of voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools are regrouping after a series of high-profile losses in the state legislatures.

Religious school aid advocates were perhaps most stung by the defeat of a bill in Texas that would have established a pilot voucher program in urban districts. It was the first time vouchers had reached a floor vote in the Texas legislature since 1997, but the measure failed in the House of Representatives.

The Texas legislature is dominated by Republicans, but lawmakers are under fire for failing to find a new formula to ensure adequate public school funding. Many legislators were apparently skittish about subsidizing private schools when public institutions are short-changed all over the state.

The voucher defeat was particularly bitter for James Leininger, a wealthy San Antonio businessman who has spent huge sums of money to elect candidates who favor vouchers. According to news media accounts, Leininger and House Speaker Tom Craddick hauled wavering Republicans into a back room to demand that they vote for the voucher scheme.

Tax aid to religious schools also collapsed in South Carolina, a state that voucher advocates had hoped to add to their column this year. Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, backed bills that would have given a $4,000 tax break to parents who send their children to private schools and extended tax breaks to corporations for giving donations to non-profit groups that pay for private school scholarships.

South Carolina lawmakers rejected the plans.

“This was a specific abandonment of our public schools,” Paul Krohne, executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association, told Education Week. “And that just didn’t ring well with our legislature.”

Sanford had also proposed creating two pilot voucher programs in the state, one in a wealthy district and one in a poor one, as a test of the concept. Legis­lators re­fused to even consider the measure when they learned it would cost $500 million.

Vouchers also failed in other states, among them:

• Indiana: Lawmakers rejected a bill that would have created vouchers for about 25,000 students at schools deemed in need of improvement. The bill also would have established tuition tax credits worth $1,000 to $3,000.

• Missouri: Gov. Matt Blunt backed a bill allocating vouchers worth approximately $4,000 for low-income students, students with low grade-point averages and students who have been removed from public schools for discipline problems. The legislature refused to consider the measure.

• Florida: An effort by Gov. Jeb Bush to expand the state’s voucher program failed. Bush wanted to offer vouchers to any student who fails the state’s reading assessment test for three years in a row, but the legislature balked.

Not all states rejected voucher plans. Utah lawmakers passed a measure to provide $1.4 million in vouchers for students with disabilities. Ohio legislators passed budgets that expand that state’s existing voucher program and increase the amounts of the vouchers.

In addition, lawmakers in Arizona approved a plan to offer corporations tax breaks in exchange for donations to non-profits that will use the money to offer vouchers. Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Dem­o­­crat, vetoed the measure.