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Charters, Vouchers, ESAs Add Heat to State Legislative Debates

The appointment of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has brought plenty of national attention to the debate over vouchers, Education Savings Accounts, and charter schools. But the real action at this point is still at the state level, where legislators and governors have the most say over the future of these sorts of policies.  

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.That's because states, in most instances provide the bulk of K-12 funding, not the federal government, and changes in state education governance would have to come from them.

Josh Cunningham, an education manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures said that, compared to nonelection years, such as this year,  he's seen an uptick in legislation for ESAs in this year's legislative sessions and, so far, a decline in efforts to dramatically expand or start brand new voucher or charter school programs. An ESA is an account set up by the government that parents withdraw money from to spend on approved educational expenses such as private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, transportation, or some types of therapy. (Here's a good explainer on the difference between vouchers and ESAs). 

In all, 26 states have considered ESA legislation as of May 1, compared to 21 states that considered ESA legislation in 2015. As for school choice bills more broadly, 35 states had seen legislation introduced this year to create new ESA, voucher, or charter school programs or substantially amend their existing programs, compared to 42 states in 2015. Both these numbers could expand in the coming weeks as more legislative sessions come to a close, Cunningham pointed out.  

"I think a lot of the states that have the right political conditions to pass these bills have already passed them," Cunningham said. "States that are still lingering are the states you saw really grappling this year with what their choice legislation should look like." 

In addition, states this year are facing a fiscal squeeze and pressure from parents and accountability hawks to improve academic outcomes at some especially low-performing schools.

Advocates say ESAs, charter schools, and vouchers can save states money and provide market pressures for traditional public schools to improve academic outcomes. Opponents dispute those claims and say the governance models of charter schools and vouchers used at private schools erode democratic principals.  

Here are some highlights: 

  • Arizona's legislature this year passed that opens up ESAs to all of the state's 1.1 million students. Previously, access to the money had been restricted to students with disabilities and students in low-performing schools. 
  • Kentucky became the 44th state to allow for the expansion of charter schools this year. Local school boards will serve as authorizers, but mayors in the largest cities, Lexington and Louisville, can get permission from the state board of education to become authorizers. Applicants will be able to appeal denials to the state board of education. A proposed school voucher bill failed earlier this year. 
  • Texas' House members have so far blocked an attempt from that state's senate to allow for the use of vouchers this year.
  • Virginia's Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would have provided public school students with a voucher to be spent on private school tuition.
  • The New Hampshire and Missouri Senates have both passed bills that would expand ESAs to the entire state.  
  • And, in Indiana,already a "agressive choice state," according to House Republican Robert Behning, and the chair of the chamber's house committee, the legislature passed late last month a bill that would expand pre-K partly by giving parents vouchers to use at private and online preschool programs. Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill into law.  

Behning, who will soon meet in person with DeVos, said he will be watching closely any federal spending on the expansion of vouchers and charter schools.  

"We're hoping that any decision that's made doesn't negatively impair those states that have been [school choice] leaders," he said. 


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