Education choice is on the march.
So far this year, four states have enacted education choice policies that will be available to all K-12 students. Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, and Utah have now joined Arizona and West Virginia in making every child eligible for education savings accounts or ESA-like policies that allow families to choose the learning environments that align with their values and work best for their children.
The education choice movement has already made more progress this year than ever before—and the year is far from over. Late last week, three state legislatures gave final approval to bills that would create new education choice policies or significantly expand existing ones.
States With Newly Passed Bills
The final budget deal struck by the Republican majorities in both chambers of the Indiana Legislature will expand eligibility for the state’s school voucher program to nearly every K-12 student.
The bill increases the income eligibility threshold from 300% of the free-and-reduced-price lunch program’s income limit to 400%, which means that more than 95% of K-12 students in Indiana will now be eligible.
The budget will also expand eligibility for Indiana’s two other education choice programs, a tax-credit scholarship and an education savings account policy. Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, said he would “gladly sign” the budget, which passed along party lines.
The Montana Legislature sent the Students with Special Needs Equal Opportunity Act to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. The bill would create an ESA for students with special needs worth between $5,000 and $8,000.
“Every parent knows each child is unique,” said Gianforte during his State of the State address in February. “Let’s ensure each child’s education best meets his or her individual needs.”
Gianforte is expected to sign the bill.
The South Carolina Legislature sent Republican Gov. Henry McMaster a bill to create the Education Scholarship Trust Fund, which will make ESAs available to low- and middle-income families.
By Year Three, families earning up to 400% of the federal poverty line (currently $120,000 for a family of four) will be eligible for ESAs worth up to $6,000 that they can use for a wide variety of education expenses, including private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curriculum, online learning, and more. McMaster is expected to sign the legislation.
“It gives the parent an option,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Larry Grooms, “It lets the parent decide what is best for their child instead of the government deciding what is best for a child based on the ZIP code in which you happen to live.”
States Where Progress Is Being Made
Several other states are also making progress toward enacting new education choice policies or significantly expanding existing ones, including:
Earlier this month, Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature passed a bill to create a tax-credit scholarship policy by a vote of 33-16.
The bill will need to clear one additional legislative hurdle before heading to the desk of Gov. Jim Pillen, a Republican, who said that the Opportunity Scholarships Act would “give parents, who have kids with the greatest needs, the means to choose a school that serves them best and allows them to thrive.”
The New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a bill raising the income eligibility threshold for the state’s Education Freedom Accounts from 300% of the federal poverty line to 350%.
The bill is expected to pass the state Senate and has the support of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who declared in his State of the State address in February that the accounts are “finally ensuring that the system works for families and that the system meets the needs of the child—not the other way around.”
On Wednesday, the North Carolina Senate Education Committee passed a bill that would expand the state’s ESA policy to all K-12 students.
“This legislation is about kids first, about families being able to make the best decisions for their child,” declared the bill’s primary sponsor, state Rep. Tricia Cotham, who recently switched her party registration from Democrat to Republican.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has threatened to veto the ESA bill, but all of the North Carolina General Assembly’s Republicans have signed onto the bill—enough to override a veto.
If enacted, North Carolina would become the seventh state to make education choice available to the families of all K-12 students.
After months of negotiations, amendments, and not infrequent recriminations, on Wednesday the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt’s compromise education plan.
The plan includes a refundable personal-use tax credit worth $5,000 per student in the first year, with priority going to families earning less than $250,000 per year.
A total of up to $200 million in tax credits would be available. By Year Thee, the tax credits would be worth $6,500 per pupil and the caps on income and total tax credits available would be eliminated. As a part of the deal, the state would spend about $600 million more on public schools, including funds earmarked for teacher pay raises.
Once again, the Oklahoma Senate responded with its own plan. On Thursday, the state Senate passed a similar proposal that would give larger tax credits (up to $7,500) to lower-income families, which are reduced as income rises to $5,000 per pupil, with a household income cap of $250,000.
In an effort to pressure the Legislature to reach a compromise, Stitt has vetoed 20 unrelated bills. In a veto message, Stitt explained his reasoning:
[U]ntil the people of Oklahoma have a tax cut, until every teacher in the state gets the pay raise they deserve, until parents get a tax credit to send their child to the school of their choice, I am vetoing this unrelated policy and will continue to veto any and all legislation authored by Senators who have not stood with the people of Oklahoma and supported this plan.
The Conservative Case Is the Way to Win
The massive wins and tremendous momentum are a vindication of a key shift in advocacy strategy.
Previously, the school choice movement almost exclusively made its case in terms that appealed to libertarians (freedom, markets, competition, etc.) or liberals (equity, expanding opportunity for the most disadvantaged, etc.), but avoided making values-based arguments that appealed to conservatives out of a fear of alienating potential allies on the Left.
However, the teachers unions’ lock on the Democratic Party prevented the school choice movement from garnering meaningful support from Democratic legislators. In years past, Democratic support for choice legislation has rarely been decisive. Moreover, attempting to appeal to the Democrats came at a significant policy cost as it often entailed proposing relatively small school choice programs targeted toward low-income families or other disadvantaged groups.
Meanwhile, the school choice movement was not doing enough to appeal to conservative rural Republicans who were skeptical of school choice. As my colleague Jay P. Greene and I observed recently in National Review, “the best prospects for additional universal programs this year are all in states with Republican governors and legislatures.”
As we explained, the school choice movement could not afford to continue ignoring conservatives:
The main opposition to these programs in Republican-dominated states has come from rural superintendents, who remind their representatives that the local public school is often the largest employer in small towns. They threaten that anything that undermines the biggest industry in their district is politically dangerous for rural legislators.
The solution to this political challenge is to help inform and organize families in suburban and rural areas who are concerned about the kinds of values their children are being taught in public schools. Radical academic content and school practices are not confined to large urban school districts on the coasts. Even in small towns across America’s heartland, public-school staffs have become emboldened to impose values on students that are strongly at odds with those preferred by parents.
Highlighting the ways in which public schools are pushing values and ideas that are anathema to the median red-state parent has increased public support for policies that allow all families to choose the learning environments that align with their values and have public education funding follow their child.
The greater GOP voter intensity in support of education choice has translated into the most massive wave of choice victories ever.
As in years past, nearly all the bills passed in any legislative chamber this year have been with strong Republican support and few, if any, Democrats. The difference is that there is now sufficient Republican support to pass robust education choice legislation.
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