School Choice Movement Exhibits Momentum Amid Pandemic

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School Choice Movement Exhibits Momentum Amid Pandemic

School choice legislation gained significant traction across the nation during the pandemic, as public schools were forced to shut down and transition to online learning with little preparation, according to an article by the Pew Research Center: 14 states have enacted laws making it “easier for parents to transfer their students out of public schools,” and at least 12 state legislatures have debated school choice measures. In March, West Virginia passed the nation’s broadest nonpublic school voucher program, shifting $22 million to $24 million away from public schools annually and requiring an additional $103 million a year in funding, reported The West Virginia Gazette.

Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota all created or expanded tax-credit scholarships this year, which make donations that fund private school scholarships tax-deductible. Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, and Maryland expanded existing voucher programs this session as well, according to Pew. Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri all created new educational savings account (ESA) programs this year, with Kentucky’s program overriding a veto from Democratic Governor Andy Beshear. In mid-June, a non-profit representing 168 of Kentucky’s 172 public schools filed suit with the state as a last-ditch effort to block the legislation.

School choice measures proliferating in state legislatures this year represent a shift from earlier programs, reported Pew. The center specifically noted the popularity of ESAs nationwide since 2011, which “are broader than vouchers and grant money to parents for a wide range of educational expenses, funded by public dollars or tax-deductible donations.” Previously, state funded vouchers were used to pay for “limited groups of high-needs students to attend private schools on state-funded scholarships.” ESAs allow states to provide vouchers to a broader set of families who can apply them to a broader range of expenses, diverting more funds away from public schools than ever before.

By design, these voucher programs “divert students and money away from public schools and toward private and religious schools,” continued Pew, and “in some cases,” they divert students and funds to “schools that discriminate based on religion and sexual orientation, or that teach alternate views on subjects such as American slavery and evolution.”

To highlight the reality of tax dollars supporting discriminatory private schools, Pew cited a 2020 investigation by The Orlando Sentinel that “found that more than 150 private schools in Florida’s voucher program denied admission to LGBTQ students or the children of LGBTQ parents.”

To date, according to Pew, 29 states—plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.—have one or more voucher, ESA, or tax-credit scholarship program, and voucher-like proposals have passed at least one legislative chamber in Iowa, Montana, and New Hampshire. Last week, New Hampshire’s legislature proposed a two-year budget that includes a sweeping school voucher plan, a reduction in the statewide education property tax, and a $25 million cut in public school funding, according to a report by Reaching Higher New Hampshire (RHNH), a non-profit education policy center and advocacy group. Now, reported Pew, school choice advocates are gearing up to protect this years’ gains and to build upon them in the next legislative session.

- Andrew Thomas, NCSPE Research Associate

Published Friday, Jul. 2, 2021