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From Charter Schools to Vouchers: School Choice Bills to Watch This Year

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By Corey Mitchell and Arianna Prothero

With all the furor surrounding the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump's pick for education secretary, and her support for school choice, new policy developments on the state level may have flown under the radar.

Although DeVos' nomination and contentious confirmation process certainly highlighted big national debates over school vouchers and charter schools, most of the policymaking action around school choice happens in statehouses.

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Below is a sampling of some of the school choice bills advocates and experts are watching in state legislatures across the country.

Charter Schools in Kentucky? The State May Become the 44th State to Adopt Charters

Kentucky looks primed to pass legislation allowing charter schools to open—it's one of only seven states that remains a charter holdout. Democrats in the Kentucky House have previously blocked charter legislation, but Republicans took full control of the legislature this past election, and charter supporters also have an ally in GOP Gov. Matt Bevin.

Rather than "if" lawmakers will allow charter schools, the question seems to be "how many?" One bill would authorize them statewide, while the other would limit the schools to the state's two largest urban areas: Louisville and Lexington.

Nevada's 'Vouchers for All' Program Faces Hurdles

Meanwhile, in Nevada, a Democratic-led legislature is seeking to roll back a major school choice program. The state's legislative chambers flipped to Democratic control in November, setting the stage for a pitched debate over funding for its ambitious voucher-like program.

In 2015, the state's then-GOP-controlled legislature approved an education savings account program that was to be open to all Nevada public school students. But the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the financing mechanism for the program was unconstitutional last fall, forcing lawmakers to find a new funding approach.

Unlike vouchers, which only allow parents to spend public money on private school tuition (including at religious schools), education savings accounts allow parents to use public money on private school tuition as well as other education-related expenses, such as textbooks and tutors.

Democrats oppose Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval's proposal to spend $60 million over the next two years on the program, arguing that any money set aside for education savings accounts would result in less funding for public schools.

Arizona Lawmaker Wants to Extend Education Savings Accounts to All Students

Arizona is hoping to follow in Nevada's footsteps—at least to a certain extent. Although the state was the first in the nation to create an education savings account program, it was limited to students with disabilities. Arizona lawmakers have since expanded eligibility for the program, which now includes students from failing schools and from military families.

Now, however, a state lawmaker has proposed a bill to expand the program to include all public school students. Unlike Nevada, Arizona's program has already withstood legal challenges to its constitutionality.

Texas Lawmakers Try Again for a Voucher Program

Republican lawmakers in Texas have introduced a two-part voucher bill that would allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools. It would authorize education savings accounts as well as tax breaks for businesses that sponsor private school scholarships—a type of school choice program commonly called tax-credit scholarships. The amount of money available to families would depend on their income.

The bill's prospect for passage isn't totally tied to partisan politics. During the last legislative session, the Texas Senate backed a voucher plan, but it never gained traction in the House, where rural Republicans and Democrats have partnered to block such legislation.

Indiana Bills Aim to Expand School Choice Even Further in the State

Lawmakers have proposed bills to both create an education savings account program in Indiana and further expand the state's relatively generous voucher program.    

A House bill to broaden the state's pilot prekindergarten program for low-income families to more communities includes a plan to expand eligibility for the state's voucher program to pre-K students as well. Currently, the voucher program starts at kindergarten. Combining the expansion of the voucher program with the pre-K program has received pushback from both sides of the aisle, according to the Associated Press.

Maryland Push for School Choice Meets Democratic Opposition

The state's Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is pushing to ease restrictions around opening new charter schools in the state and to increase the number of students who can attend private schools on vouchers. Hogan's charter bill would establish an independent charter-approval board. Right now, only school districts can approve the opening of new charter schools in the state.

Hogan also wants to double the amount of money the state spends on vouchers, increasing the total to $10 million.

Democratic lawmakers and teachers' unions are already aligning to oppose plans to expand choice. Maryland State Education Association President Betty Weller denounced what she called the "Trump-DeVos-Hogan privatization agenda" for schools.

Is there an important piece of school choice legislation you feel should be included on the list? Share it with us in the comments section below.

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