This post might be a bit of a downer, but we’re not expecting 2020 to be a banner legislative year for school choice.
That’s not because there’s nothing happening.
In fact, choice—whether it’s charters or access to private schools—has been getting lots of headlines. There also are a number of high-profile legal cases moving through the courts that could affect the choice landscape.
But all of that is unlikely to change the near-term prognosis for school choice in the states, where the vast majority of education funding originates and where lawmakers have the ability to enact programs that empower families.
Despite widespread public support for policies that level the playing field and provide educational opportunity to all, school choice unfortunately has become a political hot potato, and lawmakers aren’t known for taking risks in election years.
There might be states where existing programs are expanded to serve more families or where small programs get started, but barring a unique confluence of events, that’s likely to be the extent of it.
Unfortunately, there could be challenges ahead for less-established programs such as the Tennessee education savings account pilot, and some programs that have been around for years may also wind up playing defense. Even if lawmakers don’t attempt to repeal existing programs, they can nibble at the edges by introducing new regulations or limiting eligibility. EdChoice will be on the lookout for those efforts, which ultimately hurt families.
Even though we’re not expecting big steps forward, there could be a few bright legislative spots in the states this year. Here’s what we’ll be monitoring:
With five programs on the books and more than 140,000 students participating, Florida has long been a school choice powerhouse. Their tax-credit scholarship and voucher programs will automatically expand this year, but given their history we wouldn’t be surprised to see a legislative expansion, as well.
Lawmakers in South Carolina may consider an education savings account or ESA program for low-income families, students with special needs, children formerly in foster care and military families.
Last year, Georgia lawmakers considered a bill to create education savings accounts open to all Georgia students. National polling suggests there’s more public support for a universal approach to school choice than there is for means-tested programs. Although it did not make it over the finish line, supporters included Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and several legislative leaders. This year, the Georgia legislature is likely to take another look at a similar proposal. In 2018, Georgia significantly expanded its tax-credit scholarship program. Could 2020 be the year the Peach State adopts ESAs?
Pennsylvania is looking to expand its educational choice. Last year, the state legislature passed a large expansion of the scholarship program, only to have the governor veto it. Nevertheless, a smaller but still significant expansion was later enacted as a part of a larger deal between the legislative and executive branches. Further expansion of the scholarship program is expected this year, and lawmakers also are likely to consider a proposal to create a new ESA for military families. Our research has shown these families face very different challenges when selecting K-12 opportunities for their children, and the issue has recently attracted national media and legislative attention.
Legislators in the Commonwealth of Virginia have filed a bill to repeal the state’s tax-credit scholarship law. Although the governor and top legislative leaders have been critical of the program, similar repeal efforts have failed in other states. To date, no legislature has ever repealed a school choice program that already has been implemented, and only one state, Nevada, has repealed a school choice program after enactment but before implementation.
Puerto Rico continues to struggle with political turmoil and natural disasters, but the island’s first school choice program, a voucher enacted in 2018, had more than 400 students sign up in the first semester following a regime change. If word continues to spread in 2020, we could see unprecedented growth for the program.
Like everyone in America, we’ll be keeping a close watch on the presidential race, where school choice—specifically charter schools—has been a hot topic. But the truth is, when the sun rises on Nov. 4 (and it will, we promise), we’ll be reading different tea leaves than much of the political world.
School choice is a state issue, and the state-level races for House and Senate, as well as 11 gubernatorial contests, will determine changes to the landscape in 2021. Those campaigns may lack the sizzle and pop of the White House and Congress, but millions of families could see more or less access to educational choice based on their outcomes.