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School Choice Advocates Enjoy Their Best Year Ever

The pandemic and all the frustrations it's brought to parents have increased support for charter schools and vouchers. States that had resisted such ideas have ambitious new programs.

(Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock)
Supporters of school choice tried for a decade to get some sort of legislation through the Arkansas Legislature, without any 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 school scholarships for children from low-income families. Sponsors tried to sweeten the deal by adding $6 million in grants to public schools, but it wasn’t enough to win support. “The thinking was that private school choice was done in Arkansas for this session,” says Patrick Wolf, an education policy professor at the University of Arkansas.

But school choice advocates refused to give up. They put forward a simpler $2 million tax-credit proposal that swayed just enough doubters for passage.

This has been a time-honored technique when it comes to school choice: When you encounter difficulty, go small. It’s better to start with a pilot that can be expanded than end up with nothing at all.

In other states, however, school choice supporters have been able to go big this year. West Virginia had no private school choice programs in place at all, but in March the state created the nation’s first education savings account program that is open to all children. (Education savings accounts, or ESAs, differ from vouchers in that public money can be used not just for tuition but tutoring, technology, therapies – a wide range of education-related services.)

Indiana and Missouri also created ESA programs this year. Kentucky’s new ESA program was the first school choice program ever enacted in that state, over Democratic Gov. 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 expanded voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs, including Georgia, Maryland and South Dakota.

“By many measures, it’s probably going to be the most successful legislative year ever for private school choice,” Wolf says.

School choice advocates across the country have been able to capitalize on the dismay many parents felt when their district schools stayed shuttered for all or most of the year. Legislation passed even in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia where teachers unions have been able to flex their muscles in recent years with “red for ed” demonstrations that led to salary increases.

“There are some parents that hadn’t considered school choice before that have considered it as a result of the pandemic,” says Jake Logan, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “Parents like the opportunity to choose, and the pandemic gave them a reason to think about their children’s school in a way that they hadn’t before.”

Logan says it’s an open question whether this newfound attitude will be a passing thing or gets permanently baked in. Opponents of school choice, seeing this year’s flurry of legislation, are nervous that education policy is now at an inflection point where traditional public schools will encounter further erosion of support.

“A small minority, but nonetheless a large number of parents, have figured out how to think about educational options outside the public education system for their kids and like the idea of public dollars flowing for that purpose,” says Jack Schneider, an education historian at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Changing Coalitions

Schneider says that there had long been an uneasy truce between Republicans and Democrats on school choice. Many Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, were willing to support some forms of competition, including charter schools.

That was a politically perilous position in a party that relies heavily on support from teachers unions. It still wasn’t enough to satisfy conservatives. Schneider notes that Betsy DeVos, who served as education secretary under President Donald Trump, ratcheted up the rhetoric with her frequent attacks on “government schools.”

“For people like that, charters were only the start of the story,” Schneider says.

Although support for school choice is part of the GOP platform, it nevertheless has run into opposition from many Republican legislators, notably those from rural districts. Choice hasn’t been such an enticing option for them, in part because there are fewer options available for their constituents.

“One of the biggest challenges to passing school choice bills in red states is rural legislators,” 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 shifted the dynamics. What had been an uneasy alliance between social justice Democrats and conservative Republicans expanded to include suburbanites and other higher-income parents who felt newly frustrated and powerless when their children’s schools were closed.

Pushing 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 found, for instance, that voucher programs lead to declining test scores.

Schneider says that some proponents of school choice no longer engage much in the debate about relative performance. Instead, they talk about the need to empower families and blocking big government and teachers unions from dictating what’s best for kids. He worries that the new momentum behind school choice will create a vicious cycle that ultimately undermines public education.

“If we reach a tipping point in these states where a significant percentage of tax dollars that previously had gone toward supporting public education are now being diverted to private schools or home schools, that will have a very damaging effect on public schools,” Schneider says, “which will then feed into these anti-education narratives.”

It’s clear at this point that school choice has increased support, certainly in red states. States that were long resistant have now opened up. However small their initial programs may be, history shows that once tax-credit scholarships and ESAs and the like are introduced, they tend to expand, not contract.

In more fertile states, legislators recognized that this was the moment to put forward more ambitious proposals, and some of them hit it big.

“They tend to be more ambitious bills, more expansive bills than in the past,” says Wolf, the University of Arkansas professor, “and they’re doing better in terms of garnering political support than most years in the past.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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