Flordia Governor Charlie Crist made headlines this week when he turned his back on the Republican Party and said he would seek re-election as an Independent. (News outlets have been writing continuously about it here, here, and here.)

But before he left, he managed to sign one very important piece of legislation that has the potential to revolutionize America’s education system.

Adam Schaeffer, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute (oh, and yes, my husband) writes today in the Wall Street Journal about the Florida education bill that will “dramatically expand” the state’s tax credit scholarship program:

The tax credits support private school choice for low-income children by encouraging businesses to donate money for their education. A business’s tax liability is cut by a dollar for every dollar it donates to a nonprofit scholarship organization. The nonprofits use the funds to help poor families pay private school tuition.

Currently, there is a $118 million cap on the program. This year nearly $100 million was donated in the program, which as of February translated into scholarships for 27,700 students. But the new law raises the caps on the value a scholarship (eventually to $5,500) and on the total amount of money that can be donated in the program to $140 million in fiscal year 2011.

It also allows the program to rise 25% annually and expands the tax base against which credits can be taken. That used to be limited to corporate income and insurance premium taxes. Now credits can be taken against taxes on oil and gas production, self-accrued sales tax liabilities of direct pay permit holders, and alcoholic beverage taxes on beer, wine and spirits.

This change could prove dramatic: In 10 years the program could raise $1.3 billion and support over 8% of Florida’s students. In 15 years it could approach $4 billion and support more than a quarter of the state’s students. A girl born in Florida today might find that a third or more of her peers are being educated in private schools by the time she sets foot in high school.

Schaeffer points out that the bill passed both houses with support from “42% of Democrats and 52% of the legislative black caucus” – a significant political shift.  It appears that states are finally realizing just how much public schools cost.
Schaeffer adds:

But money is far from the only reason Democrats support this program. State Rep. Bill Heller, the top Democrat on the House Education Policy Council, wrote recently in the St. Petersburg Times, “To me, a scholarship option for poor, struggling schoolchildren is in the greatest tradition of our collective commitment to equal educational opportunity.”

At IWF we place a high value on school choice. No issue is more personal than a child’s education.  Let’s hope more states follow in Florida’s footsteps.