Carson Smith was 22 months old when he slipped into silence. In 2000, the jabbering, Utah preschooler gradually stopped answering to his name and looking at people when they spoke to him. Then he stopped speaking altogether.
The diagnosis: Autism.
Carson's mom, Cheryl Smith, quit her job to care for Carson, and the family enrolled the boy in an intensive, full-time program called the Pingree School for Autistic Children. As a special-needs child, Carson attended using state dollars-that is, until he turned 5. Then public funding dried up, leaving the Smiths to face Pingree's $23,000-a-year tuition bill alone.
In 2003, they drained their savings account to pay it, then began asking questions: Why would the state fund a preschool for special-needs children, but financially abandon those same kids when they reached kindergarten? And why, Mrs. Smith said, "were we paying taxes for Carson to go to the neighborhood school when he couldn't go there? Why couldn't we take that money and use it in a specialized setting where he could get some real help?"
Those questions jelled into telephone calls to legislators from a mom whose highest level of political activism had until then been to vote. "I didn't know what I was doing," Mrs. Smith said. "My passion was to help my son."
Her passion produced results: She teamed with lawmakers, school-choice groups, and the parents of other special-needs kids, and in 2005 the Carson Smith Scholarship program was born. The program provides $3,400 to $5,700 per year for special-needs kids to attend private schools.
The Utah program will contribute to an increase of 25 percent in school-choice scholarships available nationwide, according to the Alliance for School Choice (AFSC). For school-choice advocates, 2005 has been the "most successful year yet," said AFSC president Clint Bolick, "despite the powerful forces blocking the exit doors from failing schools."
K-12 voucher and tax-credit bills passed 19 legislative houses in 12 states. Six states-Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah-enacted or expanded choice programs, increasing from 93,000 to 130,000 the number of kids expected to benefit from voucher and state-sanctioned tax-credit scholarships in 2006.
Dollar-wise, the new laws will mean a 40 percent jump-from $270 million in 2005 to $390 million in 2006-in the amount of funds available to parents who might choose private schools for their children. Meanwhile, support for such programs spilled across party lines: Two Democratic governors-Janet Napolitano (Ariz.) and Ed Rendell (Penn.)-this year signed choice bills, while Democratic legislative leaders supported school-choice bills in at least four states-Louisiana, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Democratic stronghold New York.
Here's how new opportunities are shaping up around the states:
Ohio: Buckeye State legislators in June enacted a new statewide voucher plan that will enable 14,000 children to leave failing public schools for higher-performing public or private institutions. The program, the largest in the nation serving general K-12 students, begins in 2007 and provides scholarships ranging from $4,250 to $5,000 a year.
In addition, Ohio lawmakers gave the Supreme Court--affirmed Cleveland Scholarship Program a boost, extending eligibility to high-school juniors and seniors, and increasing the annual voucher amount to $3,450 for all students. They also made permanent a pilot program that provides scholarships to autistic children, hiking the annual scholarship amount from $15,000 to $20,000, and nixing the cap on the number of kids who can participate.
Arizona: More than 20,000 kids attend private schools using the Arizona Scholarship Tax Credit (ASTC) program. But a quirk in the state code had allowed individuals to claim a $500 tax credit for a like-sized scholarship donation, while limiting couples filing jointly to a combined donation-and credit-of $625. Lawmakers knocked out the so-called "marriage penalty," almost certainly increasing future donations to the ASTC program.
Florida: Lawmakers raised the cap on the state's corporate scholarship tax-credit program from $50 million to $88 million, nearly doubling the number of scholarships available to parents who want to send their kids to private institutions. The state also approved a universal, state-funded pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds that allows parents to use vouchers at private preschools (see sidebar).
Pennsylvania: Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell in July signed a budget that expands the state's existing Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) Program, raising $29.3 million for private-school scholarships. In 2005, 25,000 children in 62 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties received EITC scholarships. In 2006, that number is expected to reach 27,500.
Washington, D.C.: One thousand low-income students attended private schools during the 2004-05 school year using Opportunity Scholarships under the D.C. School Choice Incentive program President Bush signed into law in 2004. The program will add 1,086 scholarships in 2006. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in June spoke to graduating eighth-graders and seniors who had received the scholarships, calling school-choice advocates who fought for the D.C. voucher program "pioneers."
"They took a chance because they hoped to create a better life for you," Ms. Spellings said.
Utah: Carson Smith, whose parents fought for public funding to help send him to a school for autistic children, is among the few students across the nation who will receive immediate benefits from school choice's groundbreaking year. Funding for Carson Smith Scholarships kicks in this academic year. But the program isn't problem-free. Lawmakers had charged the Utah State Board of Education with setting criteria that would determine which schools could receive public money under the program.
In response-and despite intervention from lawmakers-the BOE adopted guidelines that sharply restrict the number of eligible schools by requiring 80 percent special-needs enrollment, accreditation as a "special purpose" school, or that a school meet public-school special education requirements.
"We are very disappointed with this," said Royce Van Tassel, executive director of Education Excellence Utah, a group that helped spearhead the program's passage. "But many of the kids who will be receiving scholarships are leaving schools that already meet those requirements. Parents are looking for a choice. The question shouldn't be does the school meet the special education requirements; it should be whether that school meets their child's needs." Mr. Van Tassel expects lawmakers in 2006 to clarify their original intent with new legislation.
The BOE's restrictive criteria will not affect Carson Smith since the Pingree school easily meets them. Meanwhile, Cheryl Smith tracks her son's progress in tiny measures: He says a few words now, looks into her eyes, and sits in a chair instead of balancing on the second-floor railing as he used to.
"At the Christmas pageant, he called me 'Mom,'" Mrs. Smith said, her voice breaking. "The other parents all turned to me and said, 'Did you hear that!' and we all started crying. I didn't know if I would ever hear him call me 'Mom' again."
Florida in 2005 approved a universal pre-kindergarten program that allows parents of 4-year-olds to use state-funded vouchers at private preschools. But what sounds like an advance for school choice may in reality be simply the best outcome of a potentially bad situation.
Nationwide, liberal lobbyists are pushing for universal preschool (see "Ploys for Tots," July 24, 2004). In 2003, persuaded by research purporting to show a virtual cornucopia of preschool benefits (some researchers claim early childhood education even keeps kids out of prison), Florida voters passed a ballot measure mandating the creation of a voluntary, state-funded program for 4-year-olds.
But research also shows that the positive effects of preschool fade very quickly, basically disappearing by the third grade, said Goldwater Institute senior fellow Matthew Ladner. Meanwhile, in later grades, U.S. students fall to near the bottom of the pack in international achievement testing: "The problem is not with a lack of preschool; it's the quality of our K-12 education system."
Some conservatives have argued against universal preschool, noting both public schools' extant failure-why send kids there longer?-and the potential for teachers unions to make it compulsory.
So is Florida's new pre-K program a good thing? Yes, Mr. Ladner said, but only for so long as it continues to bridge the gap between politics and parents by allowing them to choose for their children a private school.