School Choice Bills Fall Short in California

California parents will have to wait at least another year for better educational opportunities for their children, as state legislators failed to approve all but one of several school choice bills introduced in the most recent session.

In the spring California state legislators introduced a package of five bills designed to give parents throughout the state greater choice about where to send their kids to school–a package choice advocates said would help Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) fulfill his dream of making 2008 “the year of education reform.”

The proposed measures would have freed California children from unsafe and failing schools, given tax credits to parents of private and homeschooled children, and let parents of special-needs children choose another school more easily than current law allows.

All the bills but one were either killed outright in committee or suspended without further action. The remaining bill, AB 2290–which would provide opportunity scholarships for low-income children to attend better-performing schools than the ones assigned to them by the government based on their ZIP codes–will be introduced next year.

Unsafe Schools Protected

The school safety bill, AB 2361, failed in the Assembly Education Committee on April 2, “which, in my mind, makes it clear the Democratic majority here care more about keeping the unions happy than they do about parent choice and student safety,” said Evan Oneto, press secretary for state Assemblyman Rick Keene (R-Chico).

“Parents might like to know how dangerous their child’s school has to be before corrective action is taken and they are allowed to transfer their child to another school,” Oneto said.

According to the California Department of Education, a school is considered dangerous if three students in the past three years have been expelled for incidents such as assault or battery on a school employee, robbery, extortion, sexual assault, selling drugs, possessing or selling firearms, brandishing a knife, or hate violence.

Playing Catch-Up

Though much work remains to be done, Vicki Murray, a senior policy fellow for education studies at the Pacific Research Institute, says the ground has been broken on school choice in California, and that’s a major step forward.

“More parental choice legislation was introduced in California during 2008 than at any point in its history, five bills in all. The state also led the nation, later joined by Virginia, for most parental choice bills introduced this year,” Murray said.

Murray also pointed out the state still lags behind the nation. “There are now 23 parental choice programs in 15 states, including Washington, DC. The number of states passing parental choice legislation has nearly tripled in the past five years, from six in 2003 to 16 as of May 2008,” she noted.

A Bipartisan Issue

Growing support among Democrats is one key to the progress being made, Murray said.

By way of example, she noted only one Democrat voted for Florida’s Step Up for Students tax credit scholarship program in 2001. But earlier this year, the Florida Legislature approved a $30 million expansion of the program with support from one-third of the Democratic caucus, half the black caucus, and unanimous support from the Hispanic caucus, she said.

“And in 2006, five Democratic governors signed parental choice programs and expansions into law, and a growing number of Democratic legislators are sponsoring parental choice legislation,” Murray said.

“Such support is not surprising, since close to two-thirds of all scholarships are awarded to African-American and Hispanic students,” Murray said.

“Comparisons with states like Florida make it difficult to excuse California public school performance,” Murray said, “especially since not one doomsday scenario predicted by status-quo defenders has ever materialized in any state with parental choice programs.”

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Austin, Texas.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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