How DeVos, Trump, and Midterm Elections May Affect New School Choice Laws
This time last year, school choice advocates were deeply divided over how the Trump administration's vocal support for charter schools and vouchers would affect their popularity and prospects for expansion.
Some saw the appointment of Betsy DeVos—a longtime advocate and philanthropic supporter of school choice—as Trump's education secretary as a rare opportunity to raise the profile of school choice policies and push them at the federal level.
Others fretted that Trump's deep unpopularity among many African-Americans, Latinos, and education reform-minded Democrats would cleave those important constituencies from the school choice movement.
What's actually played out since then is somewhere in between, according to prominent school choice advocacy and lobbying groups.
"Of the folks that were trying to learn more about [private school choice] but were generally skeptical of the programs, I don't think it's done much to help those folks," said Michael Chartier, the senior director of state relations at EdChoice. "Of the people who had learned about what educational choice is and were open to the idea, it provided a little bit of reassurance that the federal government isn't going to be breathing down our neck and try to hurt us with this. But overall, really, it's been sort of a wash."
That sentiment was echoed by Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
"At this point, they've had almost no impact on legislative activity," he said of the Trump administration. "But we'll see if that continues to be the case, particularly as part of the elections this fall."
Ziebarth says his organization is still bracing for anti-charter school blowback as the 2018 midterm elections gear up, especially as teachers' unions seem poised to leverage DeVos' unpopularity—in particular among educators—against Republicans and school choice initiatives.
"Our big concern, obviously, is that it's going to make it harder for Democrats to support us," Ziebarth said. "We haven't seen that yet, but we're doubling down to make sure that our Democratic friends stand with us on these issues."
From Charter Schools to Vouchers: What to Watch for in Statehouses This Year
Irrespective of DeVos and Trump, Ziebarth expects the looming midterm elections to dampen interest in proposing and supporting charter school-related legislation. That's because lawmakers tend to play it safe leading up to elections, he said.
Ziebarth doesn't expect any of the six remaining states without a charter school law on the books—Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia—will flip this year, although he predicts there will be attempts to lift caps on charter schools in Maine and Missouri.
Legislation proposed in Indiana would layer more regulations on authorizers, which are the various groups that oversee charter schools.
Otherwise, Ziebarth foresees charter supporters playing defense this spring. New Jersey's Democratic governor-elect, Phil Murphy, is not as charter-friendly as outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie who acted as a backstop to proposals passed out of the statehouse that advocates saw as anti-charter. And there may be attempts to roll back gains charter advocates made last year in Colorado and Florida to increase funding and access to facilities.
"I think it's important to note that we're coming off a year in 2017 when we had really a banner year in achieving several legislative victories across the country," Ziebarth said.
On the private school choice front, Chartier is watching Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and West Virginia, where he says proposals are currently being formulated to drastically expand private school choice, mostly via education savings accounts, rather than traditional vouchers.
These states have a few important things in common, said Chartier.
"They all have high-quality bills either introduced, in the case of New Hampshire, or being discussed and talked about in most of the other cases," he said. "They've got a good local coalition on the ground—people who are willing to help educate folks about what school choice is ... and how it can work in their state. And those states do have a good likelihood of success in terms of the constitutional nature. Taking a look at their past precedents, we believe there's a good possibility the programs will survive legal challenges and flourish."
Other proposals worth watching are in Florida. One would allow students bullied in their public schools to use a tax-credit scholarship to attend a private school.
At the same time, another lawmaker in Florida is looking to impose more regulations on private school choice programs.
- Opening Gavel: Your Guide to States' 2018 Legislative Sessions
- Map: Cyber Charters Have a New Champion in Betsy DeVos, But Struggles Continue
- Does the Tax Bill Help Fulfill Trump's $20 Billion School Choice Promise?
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Photo: President Donald Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., left, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hold cards received from the children in a 4th-grade class during a tour of St. Andrew Catholic School on March 3, in Orlando, Fla. Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, are at rear. —Alex Brandon/AP