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States pursue school choice

Lawmakers try to give parents more educational freedom

A third grade math class at Central Christian Academy in Houston, Pa. Associated Press/Photo by Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (file)

States pursue school choice

In Iowa, a bill offering education money to parents to use with more discretion and opening the door to easier charter school approval is waiting for debate on the state Senate floor after passing a committee vote in late January. Iowa is one of at least 20 states that have introduced bills supporting school choice in 2021.

Though former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used her role to push for school choice, most funding decisions happen at the state level. In July 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that states can’t exclude religious schools from tuition subsidy programs. The decision breathed new life into school choice. And the pandemic only emphasized the need for options, spurring many states to expand funding for education beyond public school.

Before this year, 19 states offered tax credits for people who donated to private school scholarship funds, according to data from EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group. More than a quarter of the states that offer such scholarships are working to expand the programs, according to The 74 Million. Bills in Washington and Missouri would establish new programs. Nebraska has also introduced a similar measure, but it faces a filibuster.

Five states offered education savings accounts before this year, according to EdChoice, and now 12 have introduced bills to create or expand them. These accounts, some funded by tax-credit programs, give parents money to spend on private school tuition, textbooks for homeschooling, or other education-related expenses. One bill in Arizona could make nearly 70 percent of the state’s students eligible for accounts. Other states are considering expanding access for children who face bullying, are in foster care, or have disabilities.

In Florida, Republican lawmakers want to consolidate the state’s school choice funding into two education savings account programs and expand eligibility to include students who have never attended a public school. The bill passed an education committee vote and could reach the state Senate floor in March.

Critics of the changes argue funding school choice leeches money from neighborhood public schools and hurts remaining students. Florida Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston called the state’s measure a “death knell” for public schools.

But Jason Bedrick, policy director at EdChoice, said research suggests competition encourages public schools to improve. “There is always a backlash from those who have a vested interest in preventing families from choosing alternatives to the existing system,” he said in an email. “But now more than ever, families are recognizing the need to fund students, not systems.”

Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.


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