Wednesday, May 25, 2005

COLUMN -- School choice should not be reduced to a bargaining chip

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:50 AM |  

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Lost in the fussing and fuming over whether Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed "health impact fee" on cigarettes is really a "fee" or a "tax" is the stark reality that once again Minnesota children are political bargaining chips.

In the game of brinkmanship politics, a low-income family's ability to make a decision about their children's educations is equated with the decision to hit a soft 17. The welfare of kids is up against the welfare of Education Minnesota and other special interest groups salivating over initiative and referendum.

The governor's controversial proposal of a 75-cents-a-pack "fee" would raise $380 million over the next two years. Under the proposal, the new revenue would fund health care programs and free up general funds to be diverted to K-12 education.

However, the proposal comes with conditions. Pawlenty insists that the Legislature pass two of the following measures: initiative and referendum; meaningful school choice; a ban on teacher strikes during the school year; and a tribal/racino partnership.

Only politicians and members of the education establishment could view this proposal as anything but obscene treatment of children from low-income families, and yet ironically, it is proposing "meaningful" school choice as the backside of a political power play that endorses its criticality to the future of children in Minnesota.

As long as the state continues to view school choice and government schools as competing rather than coexisting elements within an overarching public education system focused on children, children will be sacrificed to the whims and political aspirations of state politicians. School choice is a way to put parents back in control of their children's educational futures.

Kudos to the governor for putting "meaningful" school choice on his short list of ultimatums, but one has to ask where was the governor and where was his commissioner of education on that issue during the session?

While school choice advocates were fighting for educational access grants for low-income families and reform of the education tax credit with local support, especially from communities of color, the governor proposed his own education tax credit, with good intentions but little support, that was simply the wrong approach at the wrong time.

Under the governor's proposal, a corporation would be able to claim a tax credit equal to 50 percent of the amount it contributed to a scholarship-granting organization — similar to programs in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Good in theory and intent, but the pragmatic sell on the governor's proposal was convincing legislators that a tax cut for business that essentially took money out of the general fund without increasing funding to public schools is a politically good idea. Not likely. A corporate tax credit for education works best as the tail end of a tax credit package, not the upfront lead.

Contrast the governor's proposal with the educational access grant legislation introduced by Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, and Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. It would provide school choice to low-income families and require no new money. The legislation would result in an increase in per-student funding for public schools.

Contrast the governor's plan with reform of the education tax credit in legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, and Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen. Reforming the current tax credit would raise the family cap and allow the tax credit to be applied to tuition payments already made by low-income families, further encouraging parental involvement in education.

Two sound approaches with a focus on children presented during the session and foundering in no small part for lack of support from the governor's and commissioner's offices.

Thanks to Pawlenty, however, "meaningful" school choice is back on the table, albeit in some questionable company. The governor has created the opportunity to redeem himself on the education issue and not incidentally garner some political capital in communities of color. Having witnessed the arrogant Democrat resistance to school choice, minority parents who had hoped to improve their children's educational outlook are looking for new champions.

Elevating meaningful school choice to a priority in its own right is not just the morally right thing to do; politically, it allows the governor some wiggle room behind the scenes to maneuver his way out of the self-inflicted "fee" versus "tax" issue. Pawlenty has shown the bluster to kick open the door to educational opportunity; it remains to be seen if he also has the courage to walk through it.