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What were the three best or most promising developments in educational choice this year?
- The sheer number of new or expanded educational choice policies: The Wall Street Journal proclaimed 2011 the “Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted new or expanded school choice policies. This year, 15 states enacted 21 new or expanded educational choice policies, including three new education savings account laws. This year, we also hit a tipping point: more than half the states now have some sort of private educational choice policy. Most of them are small and eligibility is limited, but they are likely to expand as people see the benefits and the idea of educational choice becomes more popular.
- Nevada’s nearly universal education savings account program: This is the boldest educational choice initiative to date and holds great promise in the long run.
- The numerous legal victories for educational choice laws: The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the state’s scholarship tax credit law, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the state’s voucher law, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the U.S. Department of Justice’s attempt to use a decades-old desegregation lawsuit to control or curb Louisiana’s voucher program, and a judge in Florida tossed out a procedural challenge that would have ended the state’s new ESA program. (See the bottom of this blog post for a list of recently decided and pending court cases). There is a very clear consensus emerging that educational choice laws are constitutional, which will pave the way for more states to adopt choice laws.
What were the three worst things or most potentially troubling things that happened in educational choice this year?
- The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to strike down (or at least severely restrict) Douglas County’s voucher law: A plurality relied on the historically anti-Catholic Blaine amendment to discriminate against families who want to send their children to religious schools. Supporters of educational choice are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision and potentially limit or strike down Blaine Amendments across the country.
- The Montana Department of Revenue similar decision to discriminate against families who want to send their children to religious schools: The DOR unilaterally interpreted the state’s new scholarship tax credit law to prohibit nonprofit scholarship organizations from issuing tax-credit scholarships to students seeking to attend religious schools. Not only is their interpretation is contrary to the legislature’s intent, but the state attorney general’s office stated that they do not have the authority to make a decision like that unilaterally and warned them that their action may be unconstitutional. I hope this sort of administrative sabotage of educational choice programs doesn’t spread.
- Poor program design in Louisiana is reducing the effectiveness of the voucher law: Louisiana requires all private schools accepting vouchers to relax their admissions standards and administer the state test, among other regulations. A recent study by the American Enterprise Institute found that only one-third of private schools in the Pelican State were willing to accept vouchers, while the majority refused to accept vouchers because of the regulatory burden. Worse, as Professor Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas has warned, “The only schools who are willing to do whatever the state tells them they must do are the schools that are most desperate for money.” It is the schools whose finances aren’t in great shape and that are less effective overall that are more likely to be willing to accept the regulations in order to get the voucher funds, which distorts the proper functioning of the market. In other words, the government regulations intended to ensure quality may in effect be limiting the number and quality of choice available to low-income families.
What major developments in educational choice, both positive and negative, should people be watching for in 2016?
I expect to see several more states adopt new educational choice policies or expand their existing ones, but court decisions and perceptions about the success of implementation of choice policies, particularly ESAs, will greatly impact what sort of action state legislatures take. In particular, education policy mavens and lawmakers across the country will be watching Nevada to see how well they implement their new ESA program. Moreover, this coming year, the U.S. Supreme Court will have to decide whether to hear the challenge to Colorado’s Blaine Amendment and state courts in Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and Oklahoma will hear challenges to educational choice laws. Success on the legal and implementation fronts would bode well for the success of legislative initiatives.
What role, if any, do you think the issue of educational choice will play in the 2016 election at the national level? Are there any states where you think school choice will an important issue in the elections?
At the national level, education rarely emerges as a deciding issue. At the state level, it’s too early to tell where and how educational choice will impact state elections. Of the 12 states with a gubernatorial election in 2016, the most likely state where educational choice will be an issue is Missouri where there is vigorous debate over how to help students assigned to failing urban district schools.
How would you characterize the overall state of educational choice in the country at the end of 2015?
Educational choice is ascendant, but still small. Most states now have some sort of educational choice policy — and even more are considering it — but most of the programs are very limited and only a small percentage of students are participating. Fortunately, lawmakers in numerous states have shown interest in expanding eligibility and growing the number of scholarships available to meet increasing demand. I look forward to seeing more progress in this regard in 2016.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonBedrick