GOP-Led States Race To Roll Out New School Choice Measures
Proponents of school choice say that public funding should follow the student.
Which state will be the next to enact universal school choice?
In January, Utah and Iowa passed legislation that would create universal school choice, joining Arizona and West Virginia as trailblazers in universal ESA programs.
These universal school choice programs take the form of education savings accounts, or ESAs, which disburse funds to families in flexible accounts that can be spent on a variety of education related expenses — tuition, tutoring, textbooks, and more. Unlike scholarships or vouchers, funds from accounts can roll over from year to year, incentivizing economization.
“Too often, parents have been frustrated that their child’s assigned school has failed to meet their needs,” an education scholar at the Heritage Foundation, Jason Bedrick, tells the Sun. “What’s clear is that parents are tired of the one-size-fits-some model of education.”
“ESAs give families the freedom and flexibility to choose the learning environment that’s the right fit for their children,” Mr. Bedrick says.
Opponents, often buoyed by teachers’ and superintendents’ unions, say these programs divert resources from traditional public schools. The programs have also come under recent scrutiny for unusual educational expenditures, including chicken coops and SeaWorld tickets.
Proponents say, however, that public funding should follow the student — if a child is no longer enrolled in a public school, he or she should be able to spend the taxpayer dollars in the education program of the family’s choice, including raising chickens and visiting aquariums.
Of the proposals, the loudest declaration in support of school choice comes out of Arkansas, where Governor Sanders made a splashy announcement of her education plan after her rebuttal to the State of the Union address last week.
Ms. Sanders’s plan would phase in a universal ESA program over the course of three years, alongside increased benefits, including raises, for public school teachers.
In Wyoming and South Carolina, bills to create ESAs have passed in at least one of each state’s legislative chambers. South Carolina’s legislation would create a more limited program — only 15,000 accounts would be available to lower- and middle-income families.
Meanwhile, Wyoming’s would be a universal school choice regime with funding of about $6,000 per student.
In neighboring Idaho, a similar bill in the state senate that would create a universal ESA program, with funding of just less than $6,000 per student, made it out of the education committee after a grueling hearing.
The Republican chairman of the committee, Dave Lent, opposed the measure. “I cannot, in good faith, send money out with no accountability,” Mr. Lent said, according to the Idaho Capital Sun.
In Texas and Oklahoma, Republican governors are making concerted pushes for school choice programs despite hesitancy from their own party leadership.
Oklahoma’s legislature is currently considering two bills that would create large-scale ESA programs — one universal. While Governor Stitt has voiced ardent support for school choice measures, he’s faced opposition from within his own party. Oklahoma’s Republican speaker of the house, Charles McCall, has historically opposed education savings accounts.
At a recent event, Mr. McCall was quoted by the Journal Record as advocating for education reforms to support students “in all four corners of the state” — implying that ESA programs do not achieve that end.
In Texas, the speaker of the house, Dade Phelan, has expressed skepticism about school choice measures in the past, while Governor Abbott has made a concerted push for ESAs. A bill in the state senate would create a universal program.
“That will give all parents the ability to choose the best education option for their child,” Mr. Abbott said in January at a pro-school choice event. “The bottom line is this: This is really about freedom.”
Mr. Phelan, however, appears to be coming around after appointing a new pro-ESA chairman to the Public Education Committee.
Texas and Oklahoma face challenges from their more rural areas, which have historically opposed school choice. Recent polling, though, has shown that rural voters tend to support school choice, but superintendents’ unions wield significant power over elected officials.
In Governor DeSantis’s Florida, the first house bill of the legislative session would universalize the state’s current ESA program.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, Governor Hobbs is crusading to roll back that state’s trailblazing school choice program. In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Ms. Hobbs rejected the premise that governors across the country are promoting.
“What I want is for every student in the state of Arizona no matter where they live to have access to high quality public education,” Ms. Hobbs said. “With this universal voucher system, that’s not happening.”