BRIEF: School Choice in the States April 2014

Alabama – Stephanie Linn @StephanieJLinn 

U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins dismissed a lawsuit that challenged the Alabama Accountability Act on grounds that the school choice program contained within the Act violated equal protection. The Southern Poverty Law Center had filed a lawsuit contending that its clients, students in “failing” public schools, were unable to take advantage of the program because they do not live near a non-failing public school or a participating private school, and, thus, no student in the state should have the ability to participate in the program. The judge issued his opinion stating:

“The requested remedy is arguably mean: Withdraw benefits from those students who can afford to escape non-failing schools. The only remedy requested thus far would leave the plaintiffs in exactly the same situation to which they are currently subject, but with the company of their better-situated classmates. The equal protection requested is, in effect, equally bad treatment.”

In 2013, the Alabama Supreme Court blocked a challenge to the Accountability Act. A separate lawsuit from the Alabama Education Association is still pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

On April 1, the Alabama Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee passed HB 558 that would have amended the Alabama Accountability Act to lift the cap on individual donations and expand the types of entities that could contribute to scholarship granting organizations. The bill died when the Senate adjourned sine die without taking up the bill.

Alaska – Michael Chartier @Mchart1

The legislative session in Alaska was dubbed “The Education Session” by Gov. Sean Parnell (R), and it certainly lived up to that name. The legislation that most interested the Friedman Foundation was Senate Joint Resolution 9, a constitutional amendment that would have removed sections of the state’s Blaine amendment, allowing for a universal voucher system. Unfortunately for the people of Alaska, that amendment did not make it through the legislature. However, the bright spot on the horizon was in the education funding bill. It contained a corporate tax credit for donations to private and religious schools. It is the Friedman Foundation’s hope that money could be used for scholarships for students. Please see our previous coverage of Alaska’s education funding bill for more information on that unique proposal.

Arizona – Leslie Hiner @LeslieHiner

April 23 was a day of victories and defeats for school choice. Here is a summary of significant legislation:

  • Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed into law HB 2150, which will allow children of active duty military families to enroll in the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program upon being stationed in Arizona; no prior Arizona public school enrollment is necessary.
  • Gov. Brewer signed into law HB 2139, which expanded the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to include siblings of current ESA recipients and children with disabilities who are eligible to enroll in a preschool program.
  • Gov. Brewer vetoed SB 1048, which would have allowed chapter S corporations to contribute to Arizona’s corporate tax-credit scholarship program.
  • The Senate defeated SB 1236, which would have expanded the ESA to include children living in ZIP Codes where the average income is 185 percent of poverty or less; children of various emergency services personnel and siblings of current scholarship recipients would also have been eligible. It is estimated that more than 100,000 children would have become eligible. A similar bill, HB 2291, was defeated in the House on April 17.
  • The House passed HB 2328 and sent the bill to Gov. Brewer. This bill removes the requirement that children with disabilities who qualify for Lexie’s Law scholarships must first attend an Arizona public school to qualify for a scholarship. The bill was signed by Gov. Brewer on May 5.
A week later, Gov. Brewer signed into law HB 1237, which added clarifying language to the existing ESA program. Some of the new specifications include:
  1. requiring parents to use a portion of funding for the child’s current educational needs,
  2. specifying that an individual or facility accredited by a state, regional, or national accrediting organization may provide teaching/tutoring service,
  3. clarifying that only children with disabilities may use the ESA for certain therapies, and
  4. improving the funding formula.

Florida – Stephanie Linn @StephanieJLinn

The Florida House of Representatives passed a bill, April 11, to expand the existing tax-credit scholarship program and a new Personal Learning Scholarship Account Program for students with special needs, similar to Arizona’s ESA program. The expansion to the tax-credit scholarship program included increasing the per-student funding amount, increasing student eligibility by raising the limit on household income, and providing eligibility to students in kindergarten and first grade and siblings of students already in the program. Check out our legislative update for more details of the bill.

Kansas – Michael Chartier @Mchart1 

Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed a school funding bill into law, April 21, that included a provision creating a corporate tax-credit scholarship program. This development ushered Kansas into the school choice club as the 24th state. Low-income children from failing schools are eligible for up to an $8,000 scholarship from approved nonprofits. Corporations that donate to such nonprofits are eligible to receive a 70 percent income tax credit, with the total amount of credits capped at $10 million. Clickhere for more program details.

Louisiana – Leslie Hiner @LeslieHiner

On April 10, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court ruling denying parents the right to intervene in the Department of Justice request for injunction against the Louisiana voucher program in the decades-old desegregation case, Brumfield v Dodd, 405 F. Supp. 338 (E.D. La. 1975). Parents now have the right to intervene in the case.

Mississippi – Stephanie Linn @StephanieJLinn

The Mississippi House voted down an ESA bill for students with special needs by a vote of 57-63 on April 2. House sponsor, Rep. Carolyn Crawford said she intends to file the bill again next year.

New Hampshire – Leslie Hiner @LeslieHiner

The New Hampshire Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Duncan v. State of New Hampshire on April 16. This case positions individuals represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United For Separation of Church and State (AU) against the state’s new tax-credit scholarship program, that is currently serving well over 100 students in schools of their choice. Check out our explanation of that lawsuit here.

Oklahoma – Leslie Hiner @LeslieHiner

On April 24, the House passed HB 2643, enlarging Oklahoma’s Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program, making sub-chapter S corporations eligible for participation and providing a 75 percent state tax credit to those donors who commit to give for three years. The House dissented in Senate amendments, and the bill is currently in conference committee.

Tennessee – Stephanie Linn @StephanieJLinn

A voucher bill backed by Gov. Bill Haslam (R) made great progress in the Tennessee legislature, but the bill failed to garner enough support to make it over the finish line.

On April 10 the Senate passed the Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act, SB 196, a voucher program capped at 5,000 students in the first year of operation. If the bill had passed, students from low-income households who attend a “failing” public school would be given the first opportunity to receive a voucher. If remaining spots were available, students from low-income households in districts containing failing schools would be eligible to apply. The House companion bill, HB 190, stalled in the House Finance Committee. The bill sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, withdrew the bill citing a lack of support in the committee.