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School Voucher Proposals to Watch: Q&A With Advocate, Part 2

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State legislative sessions are in full swing across the country, and several are considering bills related to school choice.

To help sort through all the proposals, I contacted policy experts at two school-choice advocacy organizations, The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, to explain what bills they're watching this year and why.

Today I'm posting my conversation with Leslie Hiner, the vice president of programs and state relations at the Friedman Foundation. She and I discussed what voucher bills she's watching. Click here to read my Q&A from yesterday with Todd Ziebarth of the NAPCS on charter school legislation he's tracking.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. What voucher-style bills are you watching this year?

A. There are a couple that are moving fairly quickly. I'd say probably the most recent that's moved in a positive direction is in Mississippi. Mississippi has an education savings account for children with special needs [click here to learn about what education savings accounts are]. That bill just passed the House on Wednesday with a very comfortable margin and now the bill is returning to the Senate where we're hoping there will be a concurrence vote, and then head to the governor.

Q. That would make Mississippi only the third state with an education savings account, or ESA, program, right?

A. Correct, I'm actually quite encouraged by the progress of Mississippi. They passed a voucher for children with dyslexia in 2012, and then there was the voucher for children with speech language impairments in 2013, and then last year they moved an education savings account bill very similar to the one this year that failed at the very end of the session by just a couple votes.
Mississippi is most definitely a state to watch.

Also in Tennessee, there were a couple voucher bills filed, and a couple education savings account bills. ... Tennessee is the state to see if they can first get their voucher bill passed and to see how far their ESA bill can advance through the legislature this year.

We're very excited about Rhode Island. An ESA bill has been filed in Rhode Island by Representative Ray Hull, he is a new legislator to file school choice legislation, ... and this would have broad application to students across the state of Rhode Island. We're quite encouraged by this legislature, and we look for Rhode Island to become a new leader in education reform going forward. I'm not sure how quickly the bill will move this year, but I would say Rhode Island is a key to watch over the couple of years. They are highly motivated.

In Nevada, they are moving a tax-credit scholarship bill. We also expect them to be moving an ESA bill as well that should be a little broader based than the tax-credit scholarship bill. Nevada is another state to watch.

I love what's happening in Rhode Island, and I love [that] Nevada does not have any of those private school educational options and yet they're moving forward this year with not only a tax-credit scholarship, but also an ESA. They're also being very bold.

Q. Are ESAs eclipsing vouchers?

A. There's a lot of excitement around the idea of ESAs. People look at them in different ways. On the one hand, people see them as a voucher that allows their child to go to a private school of their choice but also offers additional funding for other services that the child may need. The other way of looking at it, for those parents whose child's needs are very unique educational needs, ... then the ESA account provides so many different options. It services a very specific type of student.

I wouldn't' say that an ESA is eclipsing vouchers, but they do add some additional benefits that some states have determined they like the idea of.

Q. What are you most excited about?

I think I'd have to say the ESA in Rhode Island is particularly exciting. It's broad based, there are some new legislators who are stepping up. And so that one is quite exciting.

Related:

Q&A: The Charter School Bills One Leading Advocate Is Watching

Some States Put Parents in Charge of Student Spending

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