School Choice in 2014: The year in review (so far)

As most states’ legislative sessions wind down for the year, it’s not too early to ask how school choice has been faring, particularly when compared with the remarkable gains around the country during the past several years.

Here’s a rundown, in case you haven’t been paying attention:

  • Since 2011, two states have enacted charter-school laws for the first time (Washington and Maine) and many others have improved their laws (a dozen did so just last year).
  • During that time, twenty private-school choice programs were created in fifteen states, along with a number of others that were expanded or otherwise reformed.
  • A handful of states created new “course choice” programs.
  • In 2011, Arizona enacted the nation’s first education savings account (ESA) program.

Why all of that activity? Much of it can be traced to the Republicans’ wave election in 2010, which made the state-level political environment considerably friendlier to charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of parental choice. Republicans gained nearly 700 legislative seats that year, giving them control over more seats than at any time since 1928. They also gained a net of six governors’ offices. Then they maintained most of this edge in the 2012 election, yielding back only about 150 seats.

Nobody knows what the 2014 elections will bring politically, but the early months of the year have seen less impressive progress educationally, at least in terms of education choice. There have been some key missed opportunities. And many legislators are calling for a moment to catch their breath after so much swift change. It’s also likely that the low-hanging fruit had previously been plucked.

Here are some highlights of the year (to date) on the choice front, with select states receiving ratings of PASS, FAIL, and INCOMPLETE. (Note that not all of these changes move policies in the right direction!) 

PASS:

Florida

The Florida Legislature sent school-choice reforms to Governor Scott that would expand the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, while adding some accountability provisions and creating a new education savings account program for students with special needs.

Kansas

After a court ruling found the Sunflower State’s funding plan to be inequitable and unconstitutional, a late-night deal traded more dollars for new reforms. The Legislature passed  up to $10 million in corporate tax credits that can be used to fund private scholarships.

New York

In a major defensive victory for charter-school advocates, a grassroots campaign and media blitz helped repel an attack on some of New York City’s best charter schools by Mayor Bill de Blasio. The mayor had proposed charging rent (which ain’t cheap in the five boroughs) to co-locating charter schools.

Still, the state’s proposed tax-credit scholarship program, which has been strongly pushed by education reformers, the religious community, and much of organized labor (though not the powerful teacher union!), is on life support but not yet 100 percent dead. Some reports indicate that the proposal might be revived and paired with New York’s version of the Dream Act, giving both Democrats and Republicans a big win.

Washington

The state of Washington approved its first charter schools ever.

Wisconsin

Even with a complete flip of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office from D to R in 2010, Wisconsin just can’t seem to pass a new charter law or special-needs voucher. New authorizers are needed outside of Southeastern Wisconsin, but rural Republicans have been a barrier on both issues. Still, the Badger State took a solid first step (or two) toward holding all publicly funded schools accountable for results. One law includes voucher schools in the state report card system. A second requires new private schools to stand on their own for a year before receiving public subsidies. Lawmakers also promise a bill to sanction failing schools in all three sectors in the near future. There is definitely more to do here, but Wisconsin is still moving the ball forward.

A comprehensive list of Wisconsin education bills that passed (and didn’t) can be found here.

FAIL:

Alabama

A bill failed that would have removed a $7,500 cap on tax credits that individuals can receive for contributing to a scholarship-granting organization. Had it passed, an individual would have been able to receive credits for up to half of their state tax liability.

Arizona

A proposal to dramatically expand the state’s innovative Empowerment Scholarship Accounts failed, dying in the state legislature. This first-in-the-nation ESA program allows students to use taxpayer money for everything from private-school tuition to tutoring or instructional materials. Any remaining funds can be rolled over into a college savings account.

Oklahoma

A bill that would have expanded charter schools into rural areas failed by a wide margin. An education savings account bill also failed.

Mississippi

The state legislature failed to make the Magnolia State the second with education savings accounts. The proposal would have allowed students with special needs to take advantage of such flexible accounts. They did, however, pass a very limited choice program for certain students with special needs.

Tennessee

The Senate approved a bill to introduce school vouchers to the Volunteer State, starting with low-income students. Unfortunately, the bill failed a key House committee vote and appears to have fallen just short again this year after prior failures in the Volunteer State, thanks to Democrats and rural Republicans with cold feet.

The Tennessee Legislature also failed to pass a bill that would have allowed for-profit charter operators.

On the positive side, a bill has passed that would limit the ways in which the school board in Nashville can deny charter-school applications. The successful bill will allow the State Board of Education to act itself.

Federal

Finally, let us consider action at the Federal level, which deserves an Incomplete:

Reps. John Kline and George Miller introduced the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act in early April. The bipartisan bill would restructure charter-school funds to focus on proven results. The bill is expected to get a vote in the House but, so far, no word on whether the Senate will take it up (though we hear that staffers there are busy crafting their own version).

Senator Lamar Alexander’s Scholarship for Kids Act and Senator Tim Scott’s CHOICE Act would allow federal funds to follow children to the school of their choice and will surely be part of the debate if ESEA is ever reauthorized.

INCOMPLETE:

Alaska

After a plan to amend the state constitution in order to allow vouchers faltered, a new idea has been floated that would create a unique program similar to a tax-credit scholarship in the state.

California

A bill would give the public-school establishment greater control over charter schools by designating in law who must be on a charter school’s board. It has met fierce resistance from charter advocates and parents but seems to have some life among lawmakers.

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