School Choice Advocates Enjoy Their Best Year
Proponents of school choice have tried for a decade to pass some sort of legislation in the Arkansas Legislature, without success. Earlier this year, things didn’t look much brighter.
In March, the House rejected a proposal that would have provided $ 4 million for private scholarships for children from low-income families. The sponsors tried to soften the deal by adding $ 6 million in grants to public schools, but that wasn’t enough to gain support. “The idea was that the choice of a private school had been made in Arkansas for this session,” explains Patrick Wolf, professor of educational policy at the University of Arkansas.
But school choice advocates refused to give up. They presented a simpler $ 2 million tax credit proposal that convinced just enough skeptics to pass.
It is an ancient technique when it comes to choosing a school: when you encounter difficulties, go small. It’s better to start with a pilot that can be stretched out than to end up with nothing at all.
In other states, however, school choice supporters have been able to make it big this year. West Virginia had no private school electives program in place, but in March, the state created the country’s first education savings account program open to all children. (Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, differ from vouchers in that public money can be used not only for tuition, but also for tutoring, technology, therapy – a wide range of services. related to education.)
Indiana, Missouri, and Nevada all created ESA programs this year. Kentucky’s new ESA program was the first school choice program ever implemented in the state, despite Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s veto.
Last month, the Montana legislature approved a massive expansion of the state’s tax credit scholarship program, increasing the amount individuals can claim from $ 150 to $ 200,000. Other states have expanded their scholarship or tax credit programs, including Georgia, Maryland, and South Dakota.
“In many ways, this will probably be the most successful legislative year of all time for choosing a private school,” says Wolf.
School choice advocates across the country have been able to capitalize on the dismay felt by many parents when schools in their districts were closed all or most of the year. Laws have been passed even in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia where teacher unions have been able to beef up in recent years with “red for ed” protests that have led to wage increases. .
“There are parents who had not considered the choice of school before and saw it as a result of the pandemic,” said Jake Logan, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “Parents love the ability to choose, and the pandemic has given them a reason to think about their children’s school in ways they didn’t have before.”
Logan says it’s an open question whether this new attitude will be a passing thing or will definitely be done. Opponents of school choice, seeing this year’s wave of legislation, fear that education policy is now at an inflection point where traditional public schools will face further erosion of support.
“A small minority, but nonetheless a large number of parents, have understood how to think about educational options outside the public education system for their children and like the idea of public funds flowing for this purpose,” says Jack Schneider, historian of education. at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Schneider says there has long been a difficult truce between Republicans and Democrats over school choice. Many Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, were prepared to support some form of competition, including charter schools.
It was a politically perilous position in a party that relies heavily on the support of teachers’ unions. It was still not enough to satisfy the Conservatives. Schneider notes that Betsy DeVos, who served as education secretary under President Donald Trump, has escalated the rhetoric with her frequent attacks on “public schools.”
“For people like that, charters were just the beginning of history,” says Schneider.
While support for school choice is part of the GOP platform, it has nonetheless encountered opposition from many Republican lawmakers, especially those in rural districts. Choice has not been such an attractive option for them, in part because there are fewer options available to their constituents.
“Rural lawmakers are one of the biggest challenges in pushing through school choice bills in the Red States,” Wolf says. “Often the public school is the main employer in their district and the superintendent is the most influential constituent they have.”
The pandemic has changed the dynamics. What had been a difficult alliance between Social Justice Democrats and conservative Republicans has expanded to include commuters and other high-income parents who felt newly frustrated and helpless when their children’s schools were closed.
Push for more
The evidence that school choice leads to better outcomes has been decidedly mixed. There are certainly impressive success stories, but there have also been studies that have shown, for example, that voucher programs lead to lower test scores.
Schneider says some school choice supporters are not getting much into the relative performance debate anymore. Instead, they talk about the need to empower families and stop the big government and teacher unions from dictating what is best for children. He fears that the new impetus behind the choice of school could create a vicious cycle that ends up undermining public education.
“If we reach a tipping point in these states where a significant percentage of taxpayer money that was previously intended to support public education is now diverted to private schools or homeschools, it will have a very detrimental effect. on public schools, ”says Schneider. , “Which will then fuel these anti-education narratives.”
It is clear at this point that the choice of school has increased support, certainly in the Red States. Long-resisting states have now opened up. As small as their initial programs were, history shows that once tax credit scholarships and AESs etc.
In the more fertile states, lawmakers have recognized that the time has come for more ambitious proposals, and some of them have hit the nail on the head.
“They tend to be more ambitious bills, more expensive bills than in the past,” says Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas, “and they fare better in terms of support. policy than most years in the past. ”