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For New School Choice Laws, 2016 Has Been a Slow Year

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When it comes to new charter school or voucher-related laws, 2016 has not yielded much for school choice advocates.

Now that spring, when many legislative sessions are held, is behind us, I called up Josh Cunningham, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, to get a roundup of the major school choice-related legislation that passed—or didn't—this year. Our conversation below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. What has been the most significant school choice legislation that passed this spring?

A. It's been a relatively quiet year on the school choice front. I would say the most significant perhaps is the Washington state bill that revived their charter school program. They had a ballot measure that created a charter school law in Washington a couple years ago and that was then struck down by their state supreme court and so there was big effort to correct the law to comply with the court ruling. So there was a fairly big fight in the legislature over that. But they did manage to get the bill passed—it's unclear whether it will be sufficient to overcome that court ruling. I imagine that it will likely end up back in the supreme court.

Q. There's also that bill to return New Orleans charter schools to the oversight of the local board. What are your thoughts on that?

A. That was really interesting. I think a lot of people were caught by surprise with that bill because of how quickly the transition back to the local school district [is taking place]. It was always part of the plan in New Orleans to eventually move those schools back to local control once they're stable in their performance and were showing that they can perform at a high level consistently.

But the big transition all kind of within a few years I think caught a lot of people by surprise. It's definitely significant.

Q. What didn't pass this year? Where there any important bills that didn't pass?

A. I would say, maybe not something that didn't pass, I mean the bill passed, which was the overhaul of the Detroit public school system, but they removed a lot of the school choice components that were originally in the legislation, particularly around creating a recovery district type of program there. The removal of those provisions was pretty significant.

There's a fight in Massachusetts over removing charter school caps, and I think that's still up in the air how that's going to turn out. But they're a year round session so they take their time.

There was a bill in Arizona, they were looking to expand their education savings accounts to be a universal statewide program similar to what Nevada did [last year], and they were not able to get that through the legislature in Arizona. So I think from the private school choice side, that was the big one that didn't go through. (For more on what exactly education savings accounts are and how they're different from school vouchers, follow this link to an explainer.)

Q. I feel like education savings accounts—as an alternative to vouchers—seemed like they were all the rage last year. I guess partially because Nevada passed such a sweeping program. But they didn't seem to make many inroads this year. What's your sense of what happened?

A. I think the fact that it's an election year has made some of the legislators not want to push reforms that are too significant. They're being cautious with the election year, and I think that's fairly common. It's usually the year following an election that you see a lot of school choice, particularly the private school choice legislation, go through.

I still think there's an interest there in a lot of states. But it is true the energy that was building last year around ESAs didn't result in a lot of legislation this year. There are no states with new ESAs, no new programs were created.

But I still think going forward we'll see a lot of states start going that direction.

Q. How would you rate this legislative "season" for school choice?

A. Like I said, it was fairly quiet, although we did see Maryland pass a voucher program which was actually kind of surprising because they have a Republican governor but both chambers in the legislature are controlled by Democrats. But they passed a voucher program for low-income students, included in their budget.

And then South Dakota joined the states that have school choice, they don't have a charter school law, but they passed a scholarship tax credit program.

There were a couple of new things that were created this year, but for the most part a lot of the big legislation that had been talked about over the last year didn't really come to fruition this session. My sense that generally it was a quiet year, and the fact that it was an election year played a role in that.

We'll have to wait and see if the pace picks up a little more next year.

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