School Choice legislation sees a potential breakthrough amid forced distance learning

/

 

As communities and states around the nation grapple with the logistics of facilitating education amid the ongoing pandemic, several states have either passed or are considering significant expansions on school choice.

 

Quick facts:

 

 

As the fallout of nearly a year of disrupted public education around the nation continues, several states are expanding school choice options for families.

 

It appears a constant theme that parents are frustrated with continued school closures and the limitations of distance learning since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

 

As the debate rages over in-person schooling as relates to the spread of the coronavirus, it appears “school choice” has taken on additional meaning as some legislation also requires in-person schooling be made available to those who opt for it.

 

Distance learning has also given many parents a new look into what and how their children are learning in public schools.

 

The push for school choice appears to be largely driven by Republicans and school choice advocates and faces fierce criticism from Democrats and teachers’ unions.

 

Iowa

In Iowa, the Republican-controlled Senate has passed Senate Study Bills 1064 and 1065 which would enact a requirement for full-time, in-person education and launch a $50 million plan to designate taxpayer funds for private school tuition.

 

The measure was introduced by Republican Governor Kim Reynolds and, if passed by the legislature and signed by Reynolds, would go into effect within two weeks, as The Gazette explains. 

 

“This a huge day for students and parents as well,” said State Senator Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale of the bills on the day they were passed by the Senate Education Committee.

 

The outlet also reported that the bills face opposition from those concerned such as representatives from education groups as well as “parents, epidemiology experts and Democratic” about a return to full in-person schooling before school staff can be vaccinated.

 

“I really think we should slow this process down to allow awareness to build, to allow the details to be examined more carefully and really to take the full measure of this,” Democratic state Sen. Herman Quirmbach of Ames, ranking member of the Senate Education Committee, said.

 

The bills, which The Gazette says were two of Gov. Reynolds’ priorities, were passed along party lines.

 

Indiana

A school choice measures in the Buckeye State would expand the state’s already robust private school voucher program to include tens of thousands of additional students in low- and middle-income families for eligibility.

 

The AP reports that House Bill 1005 would raise income minimums for a family of for up to $110,000 per year in 2022, and a little over $145,000 by 2023 and establish “education savings accounts” to provide more flexible funds for families of special needs children to spend on schooling, tutoring, or other services. The AP said,

 

“Roughly 38,000 newly eligible students are expected to make the switch from a traditional school corporation if the program expansion passes, according to the Legislative Services AgencyAnother 12,000 students who already attend participating private schools, but don’t currently qualify for state aid, would also become eligible for funding.”

 

It’s clear that the pandemic is the driving force behind the agenda to expand school choice to include a broader range of both in-person and distance learning options.

 

“The overall policy is money should follow the child, to where that child is being educated,” Republican Speaker of the House Todd Huston said. “The pandemic has made clear the importance of providing a range of options.”

 

His Democratic counterparts, however, argue that expanding the voucher system would drain funds from traditional public schools and minimize government oversight.

 

“We’d be taking thousands of kids who are already currently funded, currently paid for, and put them on the state’s obligation,” said Democratic House Education Committee member state Rep. Ed DeLaney.  “When we give these voucher schools money, we don’t control them, which is truly unique. We don’t run those schools, we don’t approve the principals, the citizens don’t vote for them. We only have an obligation to pay.”

 

Ohio

In November of 2020, Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill expanding the state’s voucher program to include low-income students.  

 

Senate Bill 89, sponsored by new Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, made several changes to the state’s EdChoice Scholarship programs, expanding income-based opportunities and the traditional programs, the Center Square explains.

 

The bill had been sponsored by Ohio Republican Senate President Matt Huffman (Lima), who has now introduced Senate Resolution 9 which recognized January’s School Choice week. Huffman said,

 

“This week highlights the importance of opportunity and reaffirms a parent’s right to choose the best educational option for their child … I am proud of the work we have accomplished in Ohio to help create solutions for Ohio’s schools and families.”

 

The new law takes effect in March and would expand vouchers to include students ranked in the bottom 20% of performance index rankings as well as students with 20% or more low-income students and to those at 250% of the poverty level.  

 

The measure was opposed by teachers who say it deprives traditional public schools of funding. Ohio Educational Alliance President Scott DiMauro said in a news release,

 

“Vouchers drain needed resources from the 90% of students who attend Ohio public schools. This forces too many communities into raising their property taxes, which then subsidizes tuition for many students who never step foot into public schools that are now financing their private school education.” 

 

New Hampshire

This week, the New Hampshire House Education Committee considered a bill that would create “education freedom accounts” to be used towards private and homeschooling amid increasing frustration over pandemic-related closures.

 

CBS Boston reports that

 

“Participants would get about $4,500, the average amount the state pays per pupil to school districts. Unlike a similar bill that was defeated in 2018, the new version would make accounts available to all students, not just those from low-income families and those living in underperforming districts.”

 

Republican state House Speaker Sherm Packard (Londonderry), who took over as the bill’s lead sponsor after former Speaker Dick Hinch died of COVID-19, argued that it was essential to provide parents with the best options available amid the ongoing pandemic.

 

“Under this horrible disease we’re under, COVID-19, I firmly believe this is a good solution for the families of New Hampshire to help them in the best way to educate their children,” he said.

 

Democrat New Hampshire lawmakers and teachers’ union supporters argue that the bill will drain public schools of resources and state Rep. Doug Ley of Jaffrey, who is also president of the New Hampshire Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, declared it was a “radical reshaping of New Hampshire’s public education system.”

 

Vermont

In Vermont, the second lawsuit against the state filed on behalf of four families argues that all Green Mountain State students should be eligible for voucher programs.

 

WCAX 4 reports that the Chicago-based non-profit Liberty Justice Center has said it is unfair that tuition vouchers only be offered to some students. 

 

Critics of the suit, however, say that it’s a “veiled attempt to get a case to the U.S. Supreme Court to get more public funding into private education, including religious schools.”

 

Florida

This week, a school voucher program passed the Florida State Senate Education Committee along party lines which would convert current scholarship programs into educational savings accounts to be used more flexibly for educational services.

 

Florida Politics explains that currently, only students enrolled in the Gardiner Scholarship program are allowed this flexibility, so the bill would merge the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities with the Gardiner program as well as transfer students receiving scholarships through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the Hope Scholarship Program to the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

 

Florida Republican state Senator Manny Diaz, the bill’s sponsor, said in a press release.

 

“Families have a variety of needs and not all children succeed in the same type of educational setting … Whether it is public, private, charter, home school, virtual, or some variation of those options, parents – not government – should determine where and how to educate their child.”

 

U.S. House

In the U.S. House, the Republican Study Committee put forward six pieces of legislation last month related to school choice as detailed prior by The Daily Signal.

 

Among these were the A-PLUS Act, a resolution which would establish recognition of National School Choice Week at the end of January, the Military Child Educational Freedom Act which would establish education savings accounts for the children of our armed forces, and the Support Children Having Open Opportunities for Learning (SCHOOL) Act which would permit federal dollars to “follow the child.”

 

 

The pandemic has brought a new degree of scrutiny to our public school system which has proven fertile ground for the school choice movement.

 

The divide between teacher unions focused on securing jobs for their members and parents wanting more choice over how tax dollars are allocated to their children is made clear by the pattern of opposition and support to measures that would further the interests of the latter group.

 

How federal and local tax dollars are spent towards furthering the education of our children is no insignificant issue, yet the debate over school choice is one fraught with nuance and complexities.

 

It is reasonable to want traditional public schools to survive and for those who have dedicated their careers to educating the next generation to have job security, in theory. But the infrastructure through which we are currently trying to guarantee both education and job security for educators is undoubtedly highly flawed.

 

Concern over the increasingly ideological climate that public schools have become coupled with the growing need for alternative forms of education for special needs children as our understanding of autism and learning differences increase have only compounded now that the pandemic has disrupted life for millions of families.

 

As long as parents are paying into a system that has funds earmarked for education, they will and ought to continue to insist that the education provided for their children is not only consistent with their values, but effective at addressing the students’ needs.

 

While it’s heartening to see this movement take flight, it must be with vigilance that we watch its trajectory continue. As funds follow children to private schools or home schools, it will be hard to fend off the inevitable pressure of increased government oversight into these realms.