Students like Delano Coffy are at the heart of brewing political fights and court battles over whether public dollars should go to school vouchers to help make private schools more affordable.
He was failing in his neighborhood public elementary school in Indianapolis until his mother enrolled him in a Roman Catholic school. Heather Coffy has scraped by for years to pay the tuition for Delano, now 16 and in a Catholic high school, and his two younger siblings, who attend the same Catholic elementary as their brother did. She's getting help today from a voucher program, passed last year at the urging of Republican Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, that allows her to use state money for her children's education.
"I can't even tell you how easy I can breathe now knowing that for at least for this year my kids can stay at the school," said the single mother, who filed a petition in court in support of the law. The state Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to the law, which provides vouchers worth on average more than $4,000 a year to low- and middle-income families. A family of four making about $60,000 a year qualifies.
For all the arguments in favor of vouchers, there are opponents who say vouchers erode public schools by taking away money, violate the separation of church and state by giving public dollars to religious-based private schools, and aren't a proven way to improve test scores.
Even among supporters, there's dissension over whether vouchers should only be offered to low-income students on a limited basis or made available to anyone. There's also division among black and Hispanic leaders as to whether vouchers help or hurt kids in urban schools.
Many opponents also dislike scholarship programs that provide tax benefits to businesses or individuals for contributing to a fund to pay for private school. They say those programs undermine public schools by keeping tax revenues out of state treasuries, an important source of education dollars.
Fights about using tax dollars to help make private schools more affordable are popping up around the country.
In Louisiana, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal won a victory Thursday with passage of legislation that expands statewide a voucher program in New Orleans as part of broad changes to the state's education system.
Virginia lawmakers recently passed a bill backed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell allowing a tax credit for contributions to private school scholarship programs, and Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill expanding a similar program. Creating or expanding voucher or certain scholarship programs has been debated in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Ohio, New Jersey and elsewhere.
But school choice supporters have faced roadblocks, too.
Recently, in Arizona, GOP Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have expanded a law passed last year that created education savings accounts for parents of students with disabilities; the money could cover expenses such a private schooling, virtual programs or future college costs.
The vetoed bill would have broadened eligibility to gifted students, children of military personnel or students attending poor performing schools. Brewer said it was too early to consider such proposals before a new budget is approved, and she expressed unease about changing the education system in ways that may make parts of it uncompetitive.
Democrats historically have shunned vouchers, but some are joining the push by many Tea Party-inspired Republicans. The momentum carries over from last year's congressional debate over whether to extend the District of Columbia's voucher program. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other congressional Republicans successfully pushed for that program to be included as part of a last-minute deal to avert a federal government shutdown.
Also last year, the school district in Douglas County, an affluent Denver suburb, adopted a program, now stalled under court order, that would allow up to 500 students to receive about $4,500 each in state money to use toward private school. Legal challenges to the Colorado district's program and the Arizona one are pending at the appellate level.
The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an advocacy group based in Indianapolis, estimates that about 212,000 students are using vouchers or tax scholarship programs through more than 30 such programs, 17 of which provide vouchers. The group said that total has risen from 36,000 students in 2000.
Teresa Meredith, an elementary school teacher in Shelbyville and an officer in the Indiana State Teachers Association who is the lead plaintiff to the state suit, said she's not opposed to private schools. But when parents choose to send their kids to one, she said, they are making the choice to pay for it.
"If they're not happy with their local public school, then they need to choose to make their local public school better, not run from it," said Meredith, a mother of four.
Pedro Noguera, a sociologist at New York University who specializes in urban education policy, said even with a voucher, many students still cannot afford or get into or find transportation to more exclusive private schools.
"As a strategy for creating more integrated schools, it hasn't shown that it works at all. So we have to ask ourselves, what is really the goal here?" Noguera said. "If the goal is to increase access to high quality schools, there's no research supporting it. But, there is clear evidence that as you lose children from the public schools, you undermine the fiscal support for public education."
But Pennsylvania Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat, says too many low-income kids stuck in persistently failing schools in some of the neighborhoods he represents in Philadelphia go to unsafe schools and can't wait for a change. He calls the private boarding school he attended in high school on a private scholarship a "lifesaver," and he's advocating for legislation that would create a voucher program. He said even if a public voucher wouldn't cover all the tuition, private scholarships can help fill the void.
"I believe a child should not be required to go to a place like that," Williams said of low-performing schools. "They should have options just like anybody else in America does and it will serve us better in the long run as opposed to requiring them to go to a place that we know they don't get the rudimentary skills."
Whether to offer school vouchers is one of the most contentious issues in education. Some of the first programs were rolled out in the 1990s in Milwaukee and Cleveland, although the debate goes back decades and President Richard Nixon was a fan of vouchers, according to the Center on Education Policy, which advocates for more effective public schools. Those on both sides of the issue have won court victories and cite research to back up their cause.
In recent years, the message among voucher supporters has shifted to one where it's not just about helping poor students, but empowering parents with choice valued and their satisfaction emphasized, said Alexandra Usher, a senior research assistant at the center.
With state budgets facing in recent years a "fiscal buzz saw" and education frequently about half a state's budget, there's a recognition that better value is needed, said Robert Enlow, the president of the Friedman Foundation.
"People are beginning to see that allowing families the ability to choose is giving them access to quality education they would not otherwise have had," Enlow said.
Michelle Rhee, the former superintendent of schools in the District of Columbia who founded the advocacy group StudentsFirst, believes vouchers should be made available only to low-income students assigned to low performing schools, and that private schools must show they are effective. She said doesn't support the idea that "every kid just has a backpack with their money in it" to go anywhere because she has not seen an economic model where that is sustainable.
"I very much feel our time and effort and resources should be focused on, as it pertains to vouchers, on what we're going to do with low-income children who otherwise would be trapped in nonperforming schools," Rhee said.