Education Week - February 15, 2017 - 13
Governors, State Lawmakers Roll Out School Choice Plans
for receptive climate
New Jerusalem Christian
Academy 3rd graders
Kaniya Brown, 8, left,
Ashten Hobson, center,
and Kriscian Myers II,
both 9, watch from
the balcony of the
office in Jackson as
supporters of charter
schools, and home
schooling rallied at
the Statehouse for
National School Choice
Week late last month.
As the Trump administration appears poised to makwe school choice
the centerpiece of its education
agenda, Republican-led legislatures
in Arkansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, and elsewhere are rolling out charter school and voucher
bills in what could be a more receptive environment.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy
DeVos-now the nation's most visible school choice advocate-takes the
helm at a time when Republicans control the governor's house or the state
legislature in 44 states and have full
control of the executive and legislative
branches in 25 states.
That GOP dominance of statelevel politics could set the stage for a
nationwide shift on school choice legislation, even more so than DeVos'
confirmation, said Kenneth Wong,
an education policy and politics professor at Brown University, in Providence, R.I.
"When you combine the federal
leadership change with the shift in
state leadership, we will be seeing a
growth and expansion of state involvement in school choice issues," Wong
DeVos played a significant role in
shaping Michigan's charter school sector as a longtime philanthropic backer
of school choice in the state. During
her confirmation hearing, DeVos declared that it's time to "shift the debate from what the system thinks is
best for kids to what moms and dads
want, expect, and deserve."
Governors and lawmakers around
the country have echoed that statement as they prepare to push legislation in an environment they hope is
more receptive to school choice.
"When it comes to education, we
need to remember that one size
doesn't fit all," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said during his
State of the State address last month.
"Parents, not government, are best positioned to make decisions about their
Republican lawmakers in the Lone
Star State 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-which give parents public money to spend on private K-12
school tuition and other educationrelated expenses-and tax breaks for
businesses that sponsor private school
scholarships. The amount of money
available to families would depend on
their income. The state's budget board
has not yet estimated the total cost of
The prospects for passage of such
bills in Texas and other places aren't
always dependent on factors tied
solely to partisan politics. School
choice is an issue in which Republi-
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
By Corey Mitchell
& Arianna Prothero
can lawmakers who represent rural,
remote areas often break with their
party because their constituents' options for choosing and reaching other
schools is often limited.
During the last legislative session, in 2015, 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
Strength in Numbers?
Kentucky is one of the states
where Republicans now have full
Choice bills introduced there would
approve charter schools in the Bluegrass State, one of seven states that
don't currently allow them. Democrats
in the state House have stopped such
bills in the past, but Republicans there
are now almost certain to approve a
charter school bill this session, said
Josh Cunningham, a senior policy
analyst with the National Conference
of State Legislatures.
The only hitch could center on
the questions of how many charters
would be allowed and who would authorize them. Some lawmakers want
to open charters across the state,
while others have their sights set
on the state's two largest urban districts-Fayette and Jefferson counties, where schools serve students in
Lexington and Louisville.
Advocates aren't yet convinced that
DeVos' national platform will pave
the way for states to approve plans.
Facing opposition from her own party
at times, DeVos came up short in her
push to legalize school vouchers in her
home state of Michigan but still champions their use nationwide.
Presidents and education secretaries long have backed some form
of school choice, said Todd Ziebarth,
the vice president for state advocacy
and support at the Washington-based
National Alliance of Public Charter
Schools, which is working in Kentucky
to secure passage of legislation there.
"I don't think her confirmation to
this position has a huge impact on
our chances of getting a law passed
there," Ziebarth said of DeVos.
In states like Nevada, Democraticled legislatures are seeking to roll
back choice bills. The state legislative chambers there flipped to Democratic control in November, setting
the stage for a pitched debate over
Last fall, the Nevada supreme
court ruled the financing plan for
the state's ambitious education-savings-account program, which was
approved in 2015 by the then-GOPcontrolled legislature, unconstitutional, forcing lawmakers to find a
new funding approach.
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.
"There's certainly higher energy
among those who support school
choice," said Cunningham of NCSL.
"A lot of that has to do with what's
happening at the federal level."
In Maryland, Democratic lawmakers and teachers' unions already are
aligning to announce their joint opposition to plans to expand choice.
The state's Republican governor,
Larry Hogan, is pushing to ease restrictions that inhibit the creation
of charter schools in the state and to
increase the number of students who
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. Maryland State Education Association President Betty
Weller denounced what she called
the "Trump-DeVos-Hogan privatization agenda" for schools.
"School choice is a state issue and
should remain a state issue," said
Jonathan Butcher, the education
policy director at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative public policy
and school voucher advocacy group.
"[DeVos'] advocacy would be good. I
hope that she continues her advocacy
while handling all of her responsibilities for public schools."
Coverage of issues related to creating
opportunities for all American students
and their families to choose a quality
school is supported by a grant from
the Walton Family Foundation, at
waltonk12.org. Education Week retains
sole editorial control over the content
of this coverage.
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