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These Are the States Fighting on the Front Lines in the War for School Choice

(The Daily Signal)—In the midst of the school choice movement’s most successful legislative season last year, The Hill asked: “School choice won big in states this year. Is the movement about to hit a wall?”

If it did hit a wall, as the news outlet suggested, the school choice movement burst right through that wall.

Sure, the Texas Legislature failed to enact an education choice bill last year. And last week, the state’s Republican primary voters responded by replacing numerous incumbents who oppose school choice with challengers who support it.

Likewise, education choice bills foundered in the Alabama and Wyoming state legislatures last year. But this year, those two states are leading the charge in enacting robust education choice policies.

The momentum for education choice is showing no signs of slowing down.

Alabama

With Gov. Kay Ivey’s signing of school choice legislation, Alabama became the 15th state in the nation to enact a program providing education savings accounts and the 10th state to enact “universal” education choice.

Alabama’s new law is officially called the Creating Hope & Opportunity for Our Students’ Education Act, or the CHOOSE Act. Although education savings accounts initially are restricted based on income, the CHOOSE Act eventually will make them available to all Alabama families with children in grades K-12, putting parents in charge of education options for their children.

The CHOOSE Act, a top legislative priority for Ivey, passed by a vote of 23-9 in the Alabama Senate and 69-34 in the Alabama House of Representatives.

This is a major win for Alabama families, who now will have more freedom to choose learning environments that align with their values and work best for their children.

The overwhelming support for the CHOOSE Act is also a rebuke to the teachers unions that spent millions of dollars in Republican primaries in an attempt to block education choice.

As education columnist Tony Kinnett detailed about Alabama’s teachers union earlier this month in The Daily Signal:

A 2023 report from the Alabama Policy Institute showed that the Alabama Education Association was the largest contributor to Republican state legislative candidates in the 2022-23 election cycle, spending $1,557,500 on Republican House and Senate campaigns. Since 2018, the Alabama Education Association has donated a total of $3,270,938 to Alabama Republicans—the most of any teachers union in the country.

The union has given at least $2.4 million to candidates for the Alabama House of Representatives, and $1.51 million to candidates for the Alabama State Senate in the last decade.

(The Daily Signal is The Heritage Foundation’s news and commentary outlet.)

More than one-third of K–12 students nationwide now are eligible for an education choice policy.

Wyoming

After coming up short last year, the Wyoming State Legislature last week passed a robust education choice policy.

“The one-size-fits-all situation is not working for everybody. What I find, being a representative, is there’s a massive amount of dissatisfaction with the education system,” said state Rep. Ocean Andrew, R-Albany. “This really opens it up for parents to decide what a good education is for their own children, and to put them in control of that.”

If signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, families would be able to receive education savings accounts worth between $600 and $6,000, depending on household income, to use for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, school supplies, online learning, and more.

The scholarships would be available to families with an annual household income of up to 500% of the federal poverty line, or $156,000 for a family of four. That’s the equivalent of the combined average salaries of a Wyoming firefighter married to a registered nurse.

The bill passed by a margin of 28-3 in the Wyoming Senate and 37-24 in the Wyoming House of Representatives.

Although Gordon recently vetoed a charter school bill, citing constitutional concerns, the governor stated in his veto message: “I enthusiastically support school choice.” He also said he is “committed to collaborating with the Legislature” to expand school choice.

Momentum in Other States

Several other states also are making significant progress toward enacting education choice policies.

In Utah, lawmakers doubled the funding for the state’s “Utah Fits All” scholarships, similar to education savings accounts, expanding the total number of scholarships available from 10,000 to 20,000.

The expansion came after about 13,000 students applied for the scholarships in just the first week of the application period—more than the number of available scholarships.

The Kentucky House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment (HB 2) that would clarify that education choice is constitutional in the Bluegrass State.

Two years ago, the Kentucky General Assembly passed an innovative education choice policy but, in a flawed decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court struck it down.

“I would like to see every child in the Commonwealth of Kentucky to have the very best access and level playing field to seek the ability to live the American dream,” said state Rep. Suzanne Miles, a Republican who is the bill’s prime sponsor.

The constitutional amendment passed the state House by a vote of 66-31. If it clears the state Senate, then Kentucky voters would have the opportunity to vote on the measure this November.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Senate voted 20-13 to expand eligibility for the Missouri Empower Scholarship Accounts Program, or MOScholars, the nation’s only education savings accounts funded via tax credits.

“This is a win for everybody in the situation, for kids, and it provides parents options,” said state Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Republican who is the bill’s prime sponsor.

If enacted, SB 727 would expand eligibility for MOScholars from 200% to 300% of the federal poverty level, meaning from $62,400 to $93,600 for a family of four. Koenig had wanted to expand eligibility for the ESAs to all students, but wasn’t confident that a universal expansion would attract enough votes.

“When someone is going to a traditional public school, we don’t means-test them,” Koenig explained. “All kids should have this option.”

Georgia’s Misstep

In Georgia, state lawmakers are taking a small step forward, albeit with a flawed school choice bill. On Thursday, the Georgia House of Representatives voted 91-82 to pass the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act (SB 233). The bill previously passed the state Senate, but now must go back for concurrence.

The Georgia bill would limit eligibility to K–12 students assigned to the lowest-performing 25% of district schools. Although well-intentioned, the proposal’s “failing schools” model for an eligibility mechanism is unsound.

First, a child’s access to a quality education should not depend on the average performance of a nearby district school. A school that is high performing on average nevertheless may not be the right fit for a particular child who is assigned to it.

Why should a child’s access to a quality education be dependent on the average level of performance of his or her peers in that school?

Second, the “failing schools” model is unnecessarily confusing for parents. Parents often don’t know if they live in an area where their students are eligible.

Moreover, as district schools frequently move in and out of the bottom 25%, the eligible zones also will shift frequently, making it even harder for parents to keep track of which areas are eligible. It will be incumbent upon local school choice groups to ensure that families know about their education options.

Georgia used to be a leader in the Southeast in providing education choice. Now it’s surrounded by three states (Alabama, Florida, and North Carolina) that offer universal education choice and two others (South Carolina and Tennessee) that are making progress in that direction.

The Peach State shouldn’t content itself with leading from behind.

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