By Josh Cunningham
This week, school choice advocates around the country celebrate the annual National School Choice Week, which provides a great opportunity to examine the explosion of private school choice programs that has occurred around the country over the past five years.
In 1990, Wisconsin became the first state in the country to offer government-funded private school vouchers. By the end of 2010, seven states plus the District of Columbia had school voucher programs. In addition, seven states had scholarship tax credit programs where students receive private school scholarships from nonprofit organizations that receive donations from individuals and corporations. Donors receive a state tax credit in exchange for their donation. In total, there were 12 states that offered at least one of these two private school choice options at the end of 2010, serving about 190,000 students.
Five years later, these numbers have more than doubled. The 2016 legislative season begins with 27 states offering private school choice options to parents serving nearly 400,000 students. This includes 13 states plus the District of Columbia that provide private school vouchers to qualifying students, 16 states that have scholarship tax credit programs, and five states with education savings accounts (ESAs)—a new form of school choice that allows parents to use their scholarship funds for a variety of educational services including private school tuition, textbooks and tutoring.
A number of the states that already had programs expanded the eligibility during the last five years as well. Wisconsin and Louisiana expanded local voucher programs statewide. Indiana created a voucher program to coexist with its scholarship tax credit program. Arizona and Florida created ESA programs that operate alongside existing scholarship tax credit programs. Louisiana also created a scholarship tax credit program in addition to its existing voucher program.
A number of factors have contributed to this rapid expansion. First, the 2010, 2012 and 2014 elections resulted in an unprecedented shift in the partisan makeup of legislatures. Following the 2008 election, there were 14 legislatures controlled by the GOP and 27 by Democrats and eight were split between the two parties. Now, Republicans control legislatures in 30 states, while Democrats have control in 11 states and eight are split. With this shift in partisan control came a large batch of new conservative legislators who favored the idea of private school choice. This was a contributing factor in states such as Arkansas, Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin, all of which enacted new choice programs following a shift to Republican control of the state legislature.
Additionally, there has been a growing demand for new approaches to education as the traditional public school system has displayed a prolonged stagnation in academic growth. This is particularly the case among traditionally underserved students including those attending inner-city schools, English language learners and students with disabilities.
Most private choice programs are designed to specifically target these students. Disagreement exists among policymakers and researchers, however, about the extent to which private school choice programs are serving underserved students at the same level as the public school system or at the level that advocates have promised.
Private school choice policies invoke a full spectrum of emotions among legislators. Disagreements about the effect these programs have on academic performance, the appropriateness of funding religious private schools, and the shifting of education dollars away from the public school system make for impassioned committee hearings and floor debates anytime legislation on private school choice is being considered.
But the fact remains, with more than a dozen states having already introduced legislation to create or expand private choice programs in the opening weeks of the 2016 legislative session, this has grown from being a fringe policy idea to a mainstream education reform.
Josh Cunningham is a senior education policy specialist in NCSL's education program.