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Those seeking a broader menu of taxpayer-funded schooling options – ranging from more public charter schools to increasing vouchers for private and religious schools – have never had a stronger ally in the nation’s top education job.
But weeks after the narrow Senate confirmation of new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (requiring a tie-breaker vote from Vice President Mike Pence), it’s not clear how much impact on the school choice debate in the states the administration will have.
“I certainly think the election has created an energy in the school choice community, particularly the selection of Betsy DeVos,” said Josh Cunningham, who tracks education issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But while Cunningham noted that nearly 30 states have seen some sort of school choice legislation already filed this year, that’s not that unusual in the legislative session right after an election brings in new people.
“It’s about on par with where I would have expected us to be,” Cunningham said.
And some who work on the school choice issue say that new administration or not, it’s not like the push for vouchers, charters and other ways to boost non-traditional educational options has gone anywhere. Measures on the issue were already being heavily debated in several states before the election.
“If you ask me if [DeVos] is going to embolden people, I’d say, no, because they’re already emboldened,” noted Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, which has opposed a program in that state that allows businesses to get tax credits for donations to private school scholarships. “There’s already been a pretty strong contingent in the Republican Party that is supportive of school privatization of one kind or another.”
Measures already under debate in many statehouses include those involving long-running issues like whether to expand eligibility criteria for private school vouchers and potential new tax credit scholarship programs. States are also likely to continue weighing how to keep charter schools accountable in terms of quality and the total number of charter schools they should allow.
But there’s also a growing area of discussion in school choice, with several states starting to consider a broader, more flexible kind of voucher known as an education savings account. ESAs allow parents to receive a deposit of public money directly into an account that can be used to cover a wide range of education expenses, from private school tuition to tutoring or online courses. The program is similar to a traditional school voucher, except the recipient can spend money that otherwise would have gone to the public school on a broader range of expenses, rather than just private school tuition.
That distinction is also critical for legal reasons - some states have run into problems with voucher programs violating so-called Blaine Amendments, prohibitions on state money going to religious institutions. But proponents argue that giving the money to parents to use on a variety of education needs, without requiring it to be spent at a private school, avoids that problem.
Critics of ESAs make an argument similar to the one in opposition to traditional vouchers: the programs siphon money from the public schools and lessen the quality of the education for the students remaining at them.
ESA programs have been created so far in five states: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada. Lawmakers in several more states are weighing their own programs, particularly in light of court decisions in Arizona and Nevada upholding the programs. Lawmakers in Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Oregon are all currently considering education savings account bills.
“This legislation will level the playing field for Texas parents who are desperate for more choices but are limited because of their financial resources,” said Texas Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor (R), who authored ESA legislation in January. “Thirty other states have school choice programs and we’re behind the curve.”
In Texas, that evolving national climate and a friendly Republican governor (Greg Abbott) has given the movement a boost, says Randan Steinhauser, policy expert at Texans for Education Opportunity.
“The momentum for school choice both nationally and statewide has never been stronger,” said Steinhauser. “With the support of President Trump, the appointment of Betsy DeVos and the open endorsement of school choice by Gov. Abbott, we believe this is the year for school choice in Texas.”
And clearly, backers of school choice are trying to use the new administration to rally their supporters.
“With a President who doesn’t fear the teachers unions and Republicans in control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, the opportunity for school choice has never been stronger,” Thomas W. Carroll, president of the pro-school choice Invest in Education Foundation wrote in an editorial on the website of the pro-voucher Thomas D. Fordham Institute.
But Steinhauser also said there’s a grass-roots demand for school choice that was there before the political changes, noting there are 140,000 students on charter school wait lists in Texas.
In addition to states seeking to add new options, there also is legislation seeking expansions of at least two of the existing ESA programs.
In Arizona, lawmakers are proposing to dramatically expand ESA eligibility, hoping to include all Arizona students within a few years. The program is currently limited to about 5,000 kids, most of whom are disabled or in “failing schools.” In Florida, which already had the nation’s largest ESA program, a measure filed in early February would increase the funding for vouchers from just over $70 million to $200 million and expand the criteria to make more children eligible.
Even if the movement for school choice was already going strong in some places, it’s clear that with DeVos – the mother of the school choice movement in Michigan and one of its highest profile advocates in the nation over the last two decades – won’t do anything to impede it. But just how or even if Washington might influence programs at the state level is hard to clarify. Any effort to dictate policy from the DOE would run counter to a longtime tenet of the conservative movement - that Washington doesn’t have the answers and state policy is best determined by the states. And DeVos said under questioning in her confirmation hearing that the Education Department wouldn’t directly tell states what to do. Asked whether she would mandate that states implement a particular school choice plan, DeVos replied: “I would hope I could convince you of the merits of that, maybe in some future legislation, but certainly not in a mandate from the department.”
The Trump administration has touted a proposal to create a federal voucher program, proposing to use $20 billion in federal money that would have to be augmented by significantly more state money to provide taxpayer-funded private school tuition for more than 10 million kids living in poverty. Rather than giving tax rebates for donations to private school scholarships, the program would be a more traditional and direct voucher program, allowing federal and state education dollars to follow poor students to private schools. About 170,000 kids currently go to private schools on vouchers through various state programs.
Some school choice supporters also would like to see a federal tax credit for donating money that could go to private school vouchers or scholarship, similar to those offered by some states.
“If Trump wants a fifty-state school-choice victory and he wants it soon, the federal tax-reform bill that can be acted upon as early as this spring is the best vehicle to get this done,” Carroll wrote in his editorial. “It would fund K–12 scholarships all across the country, and would offer an instant legacy by improving quickly the lives of millions of American students.”
The relationship between DeVos and school choice supporters may also be clouded by the fact that support isn’t uniform. Some charter school advocates, for example, are leery of DeVos’s support for vouchers and religious schools. Support for public charter schools, meanwhile, is fairly broad and bipartisan. As Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., noted during DeVos’ nomination hearing, charter schools aren’t much of an issue for many Democrats, and are “thoroughly in the mainstream.” Arne Duncan, who was education secretary in President Obama’s administration, was known for promoting charter schools when he led the Chicago school system. And some charter school associations, notably in California and Massachusetts, have said they’re concerned that the Trump administration may try to force states to put more money into voucher programs that would favor private schools over public charter schools.
As DeVos’ cryptic answer on how the DOE might approach school choice in the states demonstrates, one thing the somewhat chaotic opening months of the Trump administration has done is inject some uncertainty into the issue.
“What bothers us most is the unknown,” said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers union, which is the biggest opponent of vouchers in the state. “All of the conventional norms are kind of up in the air now, because the president is someone who seems to thrive on shaking things up.”
Stier sees the same hard-to-follow policy incoherence when watching the new Trump administration from Pennsylvania.
“We have no idea what he’s going to propose,” he said.
--By SNCJ Correspondent Dave Royse