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Governors, State Lawmakers Roll Out School Choice Proposals

Proponents hoping for receptive climate
By Arianna Prothero & Corey Mitchell — February 13, 2017 5 min read
New Jerusalem Christian Academy 3rd graders Kaniya Brown, 8, left, Ashten Hobson, center, and Kriscian Myers II, both 9, watch from the balcony of the Mississippi governor’s office in Jackson as supporters of charter schools, religious schools, and home schooling rallied at the Statehouse for National School Choice Week late last month.

As the Trump administration appears poised to make school choice the centerpiece of its education agenda, Republican-led legislatures in Arkansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, and elsewhere are rolling out charter school and voucher bills in what could be a more receptive environment.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—now the nation’s most visible school choice advocate—takes the helm at a time when Republicans control the governor’s house or the state legislature in 44 states and have full control of the executive and legislative branches in 25 states.

That GOP dominance of state-level politics could set the stage for a nationwide shift on school choice legislation, even more so than DeVos’ confirmation, said Kenneth Wong, an education policy and politics professor at Brown University, in Providence, R.I.

“When you combine the federal leadership change with the shift in state leadership, we will be seeing a growth and expansion of state involvement in school choice issues,” Wong predicted.

DeVos played a significant role in shaping Michigan’s charter school sector as a longtime philanthropic backer of school choice in the state. During her confirmation hearing, DeVos declared that it’s time to “shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect, and deserve.”

Pushing Legislation

Governors and lawmakers around the country have echoed that statement as they prepare to push legislation in an environment they hope is more receptive to school choice.

“When it comes to education, we need to remember that one size doesn’t fit all,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said during his State of the State address last month. “Parents, not government, are best positioned to make decisions about their child’s education.”

Republican lawmakers in the Lone Star State have introduced a two-part voucher bill that would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools. It would authorize education savings accounts—which give parents public money to spend on private K-12 school tuition and other education-related expenses—and tax breaks for businesses that sponsor private school scholarships. The amount of money available to families would depend on their income. The state’s budget board has not yet estimated the total cost of the legislation.

Supporters of school vouchers rallied last month in Austin, Texas, in hopes of persuading state lawmakers to approve a voucher program that would provide public money to families to help pay tuition at private and religious schools.

The prospects for passage of such bills in Texas and other places aren’t always dependent on factors tied solely to partisan politics. School choice is an issue in which Republican lawmakers who represent rural, remote areas often break with their party because their constituents’ options for choosing and reaching other schools is often limited.

During the last legislative session, in 2015, the Texas Senate backed a voucher plan, but it never gained traction in the House, where rural Republicans and Democrats have partnered to block such legislation.

Strength in Numbers?

Kentucky is one of the states where Republicans now have full control.

Choice bills introduced there would approve charter schools in the Bluegrass State, one of seven states that don’t currently allow them. Democrats in the state House have stopped such bills in the past, but Republicans there are now almost certain to approve a charter school bill this session, said Josh Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The only hitch could center on the questions of how many charters would be allowed and who would authorize them. Some lawmakers want to open charters across the state, while others have their sights set on the state’s two largest urban districts—Fayette and Jefferson counties, where schools serve students in Lexington and Louisville.

Advocates aren’t yet convinced that DeVos’ national platform will pave the way for states to approve plans. Facing opposition from her own party at times, DeVos came up short in her push to legalize school vouchers in her home state of Michigan but still champions their use nationwide.

Presidents and education secretaries long have backed some form of school choice, said Todd Ziebarth, the vice president for state advocacy and support at the Washington-based National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, which is working in Kentucky to secure passage of legislation there.

“I don’t think her confirmation to this position has a huge impact on our chances of getting a law passed there,” Ziebarth said of DeVos.

In states like Nevada, Democratic-led legislatures are seeking to roll back choice bills. The state legislative chambers there flipped to Democratic control in November, setting the stage for a pitched debate over voucher funding.

Last fall, the Nevada supreme court ruled the financing plan for the state’s ambitious education-savings-account program, which was approved in 2015 by the then-GOP-controlled legislature, unconstitutional, forcing lawmakers to find a new funding approach.

Democrats oppose Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposal to spend $60 million over the next two years on the program, arguing that any money set aside for education savings accounts would result in less funding for public schools. “There’s certainly higher energy among those who support school choice,” said Cunningham of NCSL. “A lot of that has to do with what’s happening at the federal level.”

Maryland Showdown

In Maryland, Democratic lawmakers and teachers’ unions already are aligning to announce their joint opposition to plans to expand choice.

The state’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is pushing to ease restrictions that inhibit the creation of charter schools in the state and to increase the number of students who attend private schools on vouchers. Hogan’s charter bill would establish an independent charter-approval board. Right now, only school districts can approve the opening of new charter schools in the state.

Hogan also wants to double the amount of money the state spends on vouchers, increasing the total to $10 million. Maryland State Education Association President Betty Weller denounced what she called the “Trump-DeVos-Hogan privatization agenda” for schools.

“School choice is a state issue and should remain a state issue,” said Jonathan Butcher, the education policy director at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative public policy and school voucher advocacy group. "[DeVos’] advocacy would be good. I hope that she continues her advocacy while handling all of her responsibilities for public schools.”

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2017 edition of Education Week as Governors, State Lawmakers Roll Out School Choice Plans

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