Turning the Tide | May 2011
Posted on Wednesday May 25, 2011
MAY 25, 2011 - Greetings from your friends at Turning the Tide! We thank you for joining us once again for our monthly newsletter as we keep you up to date on what has been a very busy month for us here at the American Federation for Children. We have much to report—including lots of news and notes from our second annual National Policy Summit. We may sound like we’re repeating ourselves, but if you ever picked a month to read TTT, this is it! Find out what we mean below.
Politics is an arena in which first-term legislators are often told to wait their turn. But two lawmakers from the Badger State are bucking political trends by standing up and giving a voice to a group of children most desperately in need of one. One of 15 states currently considering creating or expanding special needs school choice programs this year, Wisconsin has been at the forefront of the fight to give educational options to families with special needs kids. That’s thanks to Rep. Michelle Litjens (left) and Sen. Leah Vukmir (right), two state policymakers responsible for introducing Assembly Bill 110 in the legislature. AB 110 would create a program based on Florida’s highly-successful McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, and would help thousands of Wisconsin families, while also saving cash-strapped taxpayers money. You’d think such ambitious legislation was the work of veterans of their respective legislative bodies, but that’s not the case—in fact, Litjens is in her first term in the state Assembly, and, while Vukmir has extensive state legislative experience, this is her first year in the Senate chamber. Having no seniority has been no problem for the two legislators, who have formed a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers—which includes another prominent champion for school choice, Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee)—and are making the bill a priority this session. They both played a leading role in a legislative hearing before the Assembly Education Committee earlier this month that lasted six hours, helping make the case that parents of special needs children want and deserve more educational options. For making families and children with special needs a priority and being unafraid to challenge the status quo, the American Federation for Children is proud to name Wisconsin Rep. Michelle Litjens and Sen. Leah Vukmir as Champions for School Choice.
We Reached the Summit!
You’ll have to forgive us here at TTT if we sound like we’ve recently climbed a mountain. We haven’t, but we’re still pretty pumped after having concluded a wonderfully successful second annual National Policy Summit! We welcomed hundreds of allies, state legislators, and various school choice advocates from all across the country, reflected on the past few months of exciting legislative progress, and heard inspiring speeches from the likes of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, and former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee as the push for educational options for low-income children continues. The bipartisan roster of speakers also included State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Pennsylvania), State Rep. Kimberly Yee (R-Arizona), State Rep. Matt Huffman (R-Ohio) and Rev. Reginald Jackson of New Jersey (trust us when we say you’ll want to hear what he had to say). It turned out to be the school choice event of the year, and we couldn’t have made it possible without all our wonderful speakers and attendees. A special thanks goes to the amazing students from Washington, D.C.’s Consortium of Catholic Academies, who made a surprise appearance and wowed the crowd with their inspiring songs and words. It’s the success of kids like YOU that remind us why we do this!
The Law of the Land
It took the signature of just one man (albeit with a few different pens...), but now we can officially say that the Indiana Choice Scholarships Program—the most expansive school choice plan in the country—is law in the Hoosier State. On hand at the historic bill signing with Gov. Mitch Daniels were State Superintendent Tony Bennett, Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, as well our friends at School Choice Indiana and the Foundation for Educational Choice. Now begins the implementation phase—up to 7,500 students will receive vouchers to attend private schools of their parents’ choosing next year, and in the following year, as many as 15,000 students will receive Choice Scholarships. By the 2013-14 school year, there will be no limit to the number of low- and middle-income families that will be able to benefit as a result of the legislation. Said Bosma at the bill signing: “This is not the end of a long march, but the end of the first part of a long march.” He’s right—there are thousands more kids in other states who need champions, and we must continue to help them towards better futures!
The Sensation Sweeping the Nation
State legislators around the country are hard at work, focused on tackling the important issues facing their communities, but there’s one thing we’re happy to see being embraced by a number of lawmakers in different states: helping children with special needs. Already this year, 16 states are considering bills to create or expand voucher or scholarship tax credit programs that give the parents of children with special needs a much-needed choice as to where to send their kids to school. As previously mentioned, one state where prospects seem especially bright is Wisconsin, where a bipartisan team of lawmakers are championing legislation modeled after Florida's McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. But the Wisconsin effort is particularly noteworthy for having truly shined a spotlight on the families that stand to benefit from a special needs bill. Check out this heartwarming story from one mother (which also stars Sen. Vukmir, one of this month’s Champions for School Choice). Contact legislators in your state to make sure that special needs children are getting the help that they need and deserve!
Battlegrounds: Pennsylvania and Ohio
Two longtime battleground states are looking to advance significant school choice legislation. In Pennsylvania, state ally Students First is promoting Senate Bill 1, which would create a statewide voucher program benefiting the state’s children in low-income families and would also expand the state’s existing Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) Program. Some lawmakers, however, are trying to bypass the voucher provision in SB 1 and expand the EITC Program as a stand-alone measure. We here at TTT are happy that legislators recognize the success of the 10-year-old EITC Program, but EITC doesn’t reach enough of the state’s low-income families trapped in failing schools (and the scholarship amounts in SB 1 are higher than the average EITC scholarship amount). We applaud Gov. Corbett for his steadfast support of vouchers for low-income kids, and we hope that legislators will follow his lead. In Ohio, the debate concerns House Bill 136, which calls for a dramatic expansion of the Educational Choice voucher program as well as a provision allowing special needs students to be eligible to receive scholarships. The bill has the solid backing of School Choice Ohio and Gov. John Kasich, who is teaming up with the likes of Michelle Rhee to garner support for voucher and charter school expansion. Nearly three months after HB 136’s introduction, we think it’s long past time for the Assembly to move towards a vote. With bipartisan support and more than 35 legislative co-sponsors, let’s get this process moving!
Georgia On Our Minds
While the Peach State was home to a disappointing 4-3 state Supreme Court ruling handed down on May 16 that will severely restrict the creation of charter schools, we were always taught that if life hands you peaches…celebrate the improvements to the Georgia Tax Credit Scholarship Program! A number of key provisions were clarified and strengthened in a bill recently signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, which increases the program’s accountability and transparency. It also gives donors more time to make contributions, streamlines the contribution process, and will likely save the state money due to the changes in how scholarship caps are calculated. It’s a win all around, and we thank our Georgia allies for their work in making the important changes possible. We’ll also be working with our charter school allies to find a legislative solution in response to the Supreme Court ruling that might leave thousands of disadvantaged Georgia children stranded without access to a quality education.
Something To Talk About
Can’t get enough of AFC? Want to hear what we have to say in between your monthly Turning the Tide and our other various communications? Well, you’re in luck, because we’ve just launched a new blog that will keep readers updated with our thoughts, analysis, and opinions as news warrants. We already have some great posts up, so be sure to check back frequently for more great content—it’s going to be a wonderful way to continue to stay updated and engaged. And if you want to join the conversation yourself, be sure to visit our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter.
Until next month, best wishes and thanks for your support of the American Federation for Children. We're glad you're in this battle with us—this fight to give kids hope!
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American Federation for Children