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Children's Hope Act: A proven method of school choice

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 30, 2003

School may be out for summer, but the struggle to achieve meaningful education reform continues in Washington.

In the aftershock of 9/11, school choice legislation suddenly took a backseat to national security legislation that was understandably deemed to be of more immediate importance. Now, school choice may be making its way back on to the national agenda once more. The drive to pass school choice legislation for the District of Columbia is underway in the House right now. After all, what could be more important than enabling a young child to leave a failing public school to enter another school -- public, private, or religious -- where the improved learning environment will enable him to achieve his true potential?

At a meeting held last week on Capitol Hill for leaders of the education reform movement and think tanks, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, recalled how the committee traveled to inner-city neighborhoods and their failing public schools some years back. Its members met parent after parent who possessed a true passion for education and were hopeful that they could be provided the assistance to send their children to better schools. Unfortunately, they could not receive it right away, increasing the odds that their children would fall victim to the low academic standards and lax discipline associated with all too many of our inner-city public schools.

Fortunately, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) is forging ahead with his Children's Hope Act that has the potential to be a real solution to breaking the impasse over the school choice debate.

Franks is distinguished by his persistence, something that was necessary during the years he struggled to pass his state level version of the tuition tax credit plan. A man of faith and conviction, Franks knows that there will be setbacks and obstacles along the way. What propels him forward is that he always remembers the true beneficiaries of his efforts will be the children to whom a scholarship funded by a tax credit could very well mean the difference between becoming a failure or success in life.

Franks is not introducing a speculative notion; his idea has been in operation in Arizona since 1998 and has funded nearly 57,000 scholarships, having generated 120,000 donations that raised $56 million. But Arizona is not the only state that has adopted Franks' plan. Florida has instituted a similar plan and Pennsylvania has a plan that allows corporations to take a
tax credit for donations to non-profit scholarship funds.

The way the Children's Hope Act will work is this: If a state enacts a scholarship tax credit of $250 or more, residents of the state are entitled to take a federal tax credit if they contribute to a non-profit scholarship organization that disburses at least one-half of their scholarships to low-income children. If the state does not have an income tax, then they can obtain a dollar for dollar credit against their property taxes. The federal tax credit will be $100 for individual returns and $200 for joint returns.

Franks also estimates that the public saves money by his plan because private and religious schools are unsaddled by the high overhead costs associated with public schools and their administering departments. There is much less paperwork in administering this plan. Franks estimates that for every dollar given in a credit, the taxpayer is saved two dollars.

The Children's Hope Act exemplifies conservative ideals: it is a powerful incentive that encourages the principal reform effort to be undertaken at the state and local level rather than a sweeping masterplan whose pursestrings will be controlled at the federal level by bureaucrats cloistered in offices at the Department of Education. Furthermore, because the scholarships are delivered to parents, it is they who have full power to choose the school their child attends. Because the few state governments that have administered voucher plans have done so on a limited basis, the number of students they have helped to leave the public schools has not been as long as the list of parents wishing to find better educational options for their children. As it stands now, Franks calls the Arizona "model" the most widely used school choice plan in the country. Citizens there understand its value; despite a slowed national economy, donations for scholarship organizations increased by 6% last year. Concerned individuals wishing to open doors of opportunity for children can do so directly with this plan.

Because this plan is not a voucher system, it unites the advocates of school choice, some of whom worry that the state money sent to private and religious schools would come with strings attached, quite possibly leading to restrictions on the expression of religious values. Such scenarios are much less likely to occur under the Children's Hope Act. Furthermore, support for this plan has the potential to even attract those, including liberals, who distrust vouchers but appreciate the simplicity of this idea.

Right now, key leaders of the House Education and Workforce Committee are behind this important plan. The committee's chairman, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), is an original co-sponsor as is Hoekstra, chairman of the Select Education Subcommittee. The Children's Hope Act was only introduced on June 5, but already its supporters include some of the most respected reform-oriented Representatives.

However, obtaining approval for the Children's Hope Act from the all-important Ways & Means Committee may prove to be challenging. Chairman Bill Thomas (R-CA) is not considered to be supportive of alterations to the tax code. What might convince him to take a harder look at the merits of this bill is to hear President Bush speak out on its behalf. Fortunately, the President needs to only ask his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), about Florida's tuition tax credit plan if he wants a first-hand assessment. Even so, advocates of the Children's Hope Act intend to leave nothing to chance. They will be promoting this bill to grassroots conservative and education reform groups out in the states. The more a buzz about the Children's Hope Act filters upward from the local level, then the more likely it is that national leaders, particularly President Bush and the House Speaker and House Majority Leader, will be willing to go to bat for it.

Think about the public schools that too many children in inner-cities will be returning to this September. Nothing has changed -- at least for the better -- in too many of them despite two decades worth of talk about education reform. Why? In too many places, the teacher union - public education bureaucratic complex is still in power and unchallenged. This plan has the power to end their monopoly, helping to take students out of failing public schools and putting them into private and religious schools where they can find an environment that is safe and conducive to true academic achievement. A bill like the Children's Hope Act can ensure America remains
a land of opportunity where people rise on their merit.

No one can paint the vision more powerfully or convincingly about how the Children's Hope Act matters to children and their parents than Trent Franks, who has been an unceasing advocate of tuition tax credits. Given his commitment, I think the chances are pretty good that the success of the Arizona model can be brought to your state too within the next few years. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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