School Choice & Charters

COVID-19 May Energize Push for School Choice in States. Where That Leads Is Unclear

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 27, 2021 8 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature on Jan. 12 at the statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
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If ever there was a moment for circumstances to fuel a big expansion of school choice in states, that moment is now—at least in theory.

With millions of children still shut out of closed school buildings due to the coronavirus pandemic, many parents have looked for months for different options to provide an education for their children. In the early weeks of 2021, lawmakers in nearly a third of the states have responded with bills intended to establish or expand on things like tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts.

Bellwether states such as Arizona and Florida, which have large and long-established school choice programs as well as a history of pioneering new forms of choice, are considering proposals to increase such options this year, along with states that have less robust track records such as Idaho and Iowa. And more broadly, K-12 choice supporters see the possibility that, with enough tacit or active support from lawmakers, things like learning “pods” and microschools could take root and grow.

According to a count maintained by EdChoice, a research and advocacy group, 34 bills to expand private education options in some way had been introduced in 15 states as of the third week in January. This stands in contrast to the approach taken by Congress, which has so far ignored calls from the Trump administration and others to expand school choice in COVID-19 relief packages.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that school choice will experience an uncomplicated, nationwide boom that endures.

For one thing, many of the proposed K-12 choice expansions are being considered in states that already offer one or more choice programs. That means that while the number of families taking advantage of new K-12 options in the coming months and years might grow, it’s not clear that this growth will break big new ground in states long resistant if not hostile to vouchers and ESAs.

It’s also uncertain to what extent these state-level plans will provide targeted help to families that will be unable to send their children to in-person instruction at their local public schools long before any of these bills become law.

In addition, the introduction of dozens of bills getting more attention because of the pandemic is no guarantee that they will be enacted. The increased prominence of the issue might, correspondingly, draw more skepticism or opposition.

Is it a groundswell or a mirage?

Nevertheless, fans of school choice (or more broadly, “education freedom,” as former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called it) see a pretty straightforward dynamic that will help their issue. In addition to traditional legislative measures, the interest in learning pods—which are informal groups set up by parents to help groups of students during school building closures—could be another source of energy for the movement.

“The story is: Parents have had their lives turned upside down by the pandemic,” said Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of EdChoice. “It turned everything upside down, and it increased the demand that was already latent” for school choice, he said.

But the extent to which many families might simply wish for a return to normalcy and for their children to go back to their prior schools, extracurricular activities, and social networks, could also play a big role in how much K-12 education choice grows in the pandemic’s wake.

“I’m not convinced that there is this groundswell of public support for advancing private-school voucher programs,” said Neil Campbell, the director of innovation for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that’s critical of private-school choice programs like vouchers.

Campbell added that “there are a lot of parents who want the certainty” of sending their kids back to the schools they attended before the pandemic hit, instead of sending them elsewhere or putting them in learning pods.

‘Let’s make choice an option for everyone’

If the pandemic does drive more interest and activity on school choice, it could lead to the reversal of a recent trend: The number of new laws expanding choice in some way dipped from 23 in 2017 to seven in 2020, according to EdChoice.

Just a few weeks into 2021, Enlow said he’s seeing a relatively large amount of interest specifically in education savings accounts, which set aside money for parents to use on a wide variety of K-12 services including curriculum materials, tutoring, and more, not just private-school tuition. His group had identified, as of the third week in January, 19 bills creating, expanding, or changing ESAs in states in some form so far in 2021.

One of the most sweeping proposals is in Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, has endorsed a 65-page bill that would give charter applicants more opportunities to get approved (the state lists just two authorized charter schools), create a new scholarship program to provide state funding to help students attend private schools, and allow students to transfer out of a school in a district that has a voluntary diversity plan.

Reynolds put the philosophy behind her plan in simple terms.

“If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us about education, it’s that our parents need choice. And it’s not just in-person versus virtual,” Reynolds said in her state of the state address on Jan. 12, adding later, “School choice shouldn’t be limited to those who have the financial means or are lucky to live in a district that’s confident enough to allow open enrollment. So let’s make choice an option for everyone.”

Meanwhile lawmakers in Missouri, Iowa’s immediate neighbor to the south, have introduced nine K-12 choice bills so far for this year’s legislative session.

It remains to be seen just how open state leaders and other education officials are to more ad hoc forms of education that have gained prominence during the pandemic.

"If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us about education, it’s that our parents need choice.

Antonio Parés, whose Walnut Hill Workshop firm in Colorado works to connect micro-school, in-home learning, and similar education models to the state, said that while lots of families will willingly send their children back to local public schools in a post-pandemic landscape, appetite also is growing for services that can be “layered on top of” what those schools provide.

He pointed to Idaho’s October launch of a program that provides up to $3,500 per family in federal COVID1-9 relief funds to pay for educational services and devices like computers as one example, but not necessarily a widespread one, of how states are thinking about the issue.

To the extent in-home and other supplemental services work in conjunction with districts, Parés said, they can improve the quality of the services while also smoothing the political path for these options. (EdChoice polling from December indicates that those using learning pods are more likely to use them in addition to regular schooling than as a substitute.)

“I think this is more gradual, and there will be families that will have alternatives now that they can continue with well into the future,” Parés said.

Lawmakers looking at different options

How states handle charter schools in the context of the pandemic presents another interesting policy and political wrinkle.

With charters focused extensively on obtaining COVID relief funds, especially from the federal government, EdChoice’s Enlow observed, a large share of GOP state lawmakers see those who work in and attend charter schools as relatively unlikely to back Republicans. In addition, he said, officials and parents are interested in a level of education customization and flexibility that many charters aren’t in a position to provide during the pandemic.

“I think lawmakers, particularly in states that have Republican control, are listening to their constituents who want more private school options … rather than the charter school options,” Enlow said.

But Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, pointed to the Iowa law, as well as discussions he’s heard about to expand the charter landscape in states like West Virginia, Wyoming, and South Dakota (where lawmakers are considering a bill to establish charter schools focused on serving Native American tribes), as signs of progress for charters in the current climate.

"I’m not convinced that there is this groundswell of public support for advancing private-school voucher programs."

While acknowledging his and other groups’ efforts to “rebuild” bipartisan support for charter schools in the wake of the Trump administration while also pushing for equitable funding, Ziebarth said he doesn’t see a zero-sum landscape for charters and private education options in states.

“I don’t see anywhere where they’re doing one at the expense of the other,” Ziebarth said. “In most places, if they’re doing anything, they’re going to be doing both.”

Campbell, of CAP, noted that regardless of the zeal and interest in pandemic-driven developments like learning pods, charters continue to enjoy the advantage of more transparency and accountability, in addition to civil rights protections.

More broadly, he pointed to a survey conducted by the journal Education Next, which showed that the parents’ grades for their local public schools and public schools nationwide didn’t dramatically change over the course of the pandemic, as proof that some of the rhetoric about the fate of public schools might be misleading.

Meanwhile, skeptics of choice in general are watching the landscape with unease.

For example, there’s a growing concern that students who are relatively successful in remote learning options could eventually be exploited to expand private companies’ reach over online education services, said Melissa Tomlinson, the executive director of the Badass Teachers Association, an educator group with state-level affiliates that opposes charters, state private-school choice programs, and test-based accountability.

Tomlinson also said a pandemic-driven focus on school choice threatens to divert attention and funding from the local public schools that are in dire need due to COVID-19.

“It’s incumbent on lawmakers to provide the resources that the public schools need to meet the needs of the students,” Tomlinson said.

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as COVID-19 May Energize Push for School Choice in States. Where That Leads Is Unclear


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