GOP States Expand School Choice as Lockdowns Boost Alternatives

April 5, 2021 Updated: April 6, 2021

Several Republican-led states are advancing school choice programs amid a growth of alternative learning arrangements spurred by pandemic-related lockdowns.

The new measures sometimes build on already established programs, expanding access to education savings accounts and scholarships, allowing more parents to pull their children from public schools and have the programs help pay for a private school, homeschooling, or even a private tutor.

Such initiatives now have the potential to gain more popularity as parents have been dissatisfied with the way many schools handled the response to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic, according to Jonathan​ Butcher and Lindsey Burke, education researchers at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

Most public schools switched to partly or fully remote learning last year, which has proved to be substantially less effective than in-person instruction. Many parents have blamed schools for dragging their feet to reopen, even after health authorities acknowledged that it’s possible to do so safely.

Meanwhile, homeschooling has exploded in popularity. Parents have also set up “pod schools,” in which a group of children gets together in a home to be taught by a hired tutor, Butcher and Burke outlined in a recent paper. The school choice programs in several states could be used to pay for this form of education, Butcher told The Epoch Times.

West Virginia

The most substantial school choice expansion is underway in West Virginia, where Gov. Jim Justice signed into law on March 29 the establishment of the nation’s first universal education savings account program.

Participants will have all the education money that comes from the state budget (some $4,600 a year per pupil) deposited into a special account that can be used to pay for private schooling. Incoming kindergarteners will be automatically eligible, while children in other grades could get in after spending 45 days enrolled in a West Virginia public school.

State dollars usually fund about 45 percent of education expenses. Another 45 percent comes from local budgets, typically real estate taxes, and another roughly 10 percent from the federal government, Butcher said.

Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi already have similar programs with differing eligibility criteria, Butcher said.

Kentucky

The state is establishing a tax credit scholarship program for lower-income children. The program will be funded through private donations, and the state will distribute $25 million in tax credits each year to the donors on a first come, first served basis. The money is to be distributed through nonprofit intermediaries to applicants based on financial need. The eligibility is set at 175 percent of income qualifying for reduced-price school meals. That’s about $86,000 for a family of four (pdf).

South Dakota

The state already runs a scholarship program funded through tax credits, though only insurance companies are eligible for the credits. It recently expanded the program to cover students already attending private schools. Children from families earning under 150 percent of the amount eligible for free and reduced-price lunch can apply (about $73,000 for a family of four).

Others

Georgia is advancing a bill that would expand its voucher program to more special needs students.

Florida is considering streamlining its five school choice programs into two, which would expand the options and eligibility for some of them.

The Missouri House passed a bill that would establish a tax credit scholarship program for children attending public schools, entering kindergarten, or coming from a military family. It would be initially capped at $50 million.

The Indiana House passed a bill that would set up education savings accounts for children with special needs, from military families, or from foster families. It would also expand eligibility for the current voucher program.

Nearly two dozen other states have also introduced bills that would create or expand vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, or education savings accounts, according to the nonprofit Educational Freedom Institute. Only about half of those have passed at least one committee so far.

Opponents of school choice have argued that such programs take students out of public schools, which then lose money that’s apportioned per pupil. Public schools can’t easily scale down their costs when students outflow because part of it is fixed, such as building maintenance, debt interest, and administration. Proponents say the per-pupil part of public school funding is generally about the same as the nonfixed part of their costs, so the schools should be able to cope.

Update: The article was updated to clarify terminology referring to education savings accounts.

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