I guess there is a little comfort in comparing ourselves to our neighbors. Although joblessness across Virginia is bad enough, it is far worse in many other states. So while the Virginia budget is hurting, the situation in many other states is horrendous.
Coming at the same time as the budget woes, a coalition of "school choice" groups says Virginians want more nonpublic school options and are willing for tax dollars to go in that direction. Among the poll's findings is that 62% of Virginians see their public schools as good or excellent, 35% want to send their children to private schools, 10% prefer charter schools (a public school freed from most regulations affecting regular public schools), and 9% want to homeschool. The groups that sponsored the poll are pushing tax credit scholarships and/or school vouchers - both schemes where tax dollars go to private schools but not through direct government payments to the schools.
First, it is important to understand - there is school choice in Virginia. Any parent can choose to home school or to send their child to a private school. Oversight by the Commonwealth and local school boards is generally quite lax and there is little or no accountability such as public schools face with the Standards of Learning.
The issue is really about money, tax money to be exact. Should the Commonwealth give tax vouchers to parents or tax credits individuals and corporations who donate to special scholarships for private school tuition. Either way fewer tax dollars are collected and private schools receive support but without much public accountability. School funding in Virginia is complicated and beyond this post, but if less tax money is collected the General Fund is impacted - which will mean less funding not only for public education but perhaps for other core services.
With a state budget gasping for air, now might seem like a bad time for these school choice groups to be asking for a slice of the state tax pie. But, several dynamics have changed and new political leverage may favor this initiative:
- Although he rebranded himself as a moderate, Bob McDonnell owes much of his victory to the religious right. Groups like the Family Foundation, who support these school choice schemes, have an inside line to the Governor-elect and they expect for him to deliver, if not in 2010, certainly over the next four years.
- With the economic downturn, many private schools have experienced enrollment declines. Parents who formerly sent their kids to a private school now see the apple of their eye in an increasingly crowded (because of lack of funding) public school classroom. Hence, both parents and private schools are more motivated to join the fight.
- An anti-union resurgence has emboldened conservative groups who want to destroy all employee groups, including the Virginia Education Association. Can you really be a union without collective bargaining or power to strike? Groups like the Chamber of Commerce which may not join the fray on school choice grounds may chime in simply for the union bashing.
Over the past five years the House of Delegates passed legislation for scholarship funds but the Virginia Senate killed it each time. There will soon be two Senate special elections to replace Republicans Ken Cuccinelli who was elected Attorney General and Ken Stolle who was elected Sheriff of Virginia Beach. Even if the GOP wins both, it is difficult to imagine the head counting on these school choice issues is changed much - unless a few current Senators have a change of heart.
More likely, the advocates of school choice funding schemes see it as something, not to be achieved next year, but rather in the next two to four years. They've had their "preseason" over the past five years in the House of Delegates. Now it is game on - in the first quarter the House will again pass school choice funding legislation where it may well die again in the Senate for both philosophical and budget reasons. Afterwards, the school choice funding advocates will have field position and in the second half they expect complete victory. By 2012 the budget situation will have improved along with the national economy. Governor McDonnell's pen will set priorities and he'll be expected to pay the religious right back for their important role in getting him elected. In 2011, the General Assembly, including all 40 Senators, will be up for election and some Republicans who haven't been on the school choice side will be under extreme pressure to conform or be pushed out. School choice funding folks believe that trio of changes - an improved economy, owning the Governor, controlling the Senate - will converge to carry them to victory.