By Josh Cunningham
Every January, school choice advocates celebrate school choice week.
This week, expect to see state legislatures around the country pass ceremonial resolutions in support of school choice. This is also the week when many legislators like to officially introduce major school choice legislation in their states.
School choice can mean many things. Public choice options like charter schools and magnet schools are the most common, with 45 states having at least one of these two programs. School choice can also refer to programs that provide financial aid to students that wish to attend private school. There are 27 states with at least one of the three types of private school choice programs.
NCSL expects school choice to be one of the top issues in states as well as Congress in 2017. During the campaign, President Donald Trump promised a $20 billion federal investment in school choice programs using existing funding sources. His administration will be working with Congress to fulfill that promise.
It remains unclear what the expanded federal role in school choice will include or what existing federal funds might be redirected. Possibilities are an expansion of the Charter School Program, a competitive grant program for states that supports the expansion and replication of high-performing charter schools. CSP was recently expanded under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal education law. Any expansion of CSP would likely require an amendment to ESSA.
Other rumored federal actions on school choice include something called “portability,” which would direct federal education funding to wherever qualifying students enroll in school, including private schools. This would be a significant shift in policy.
Currently, federal funding is funneled through school districts which can disperse funds to public schools as needed. Private schools for the most part do not have access to federal dollars. This program would also require Congress to amend ESSA, and possibly the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if students with disabilities are also eligible.
The last potential federal action is a federal scholarship tax credit program. In 2015, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) andU.S. Representative Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) introduced federal legislation to award individuals and corporations a federal tax credit if they made donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations. These organizations, in turn, use 90 percent of the donations to fund private school scholarships, keeping 10 percent for administrative costs.
Betsy DeVos, the current nominee for secretary of education, publicly supported the 2015 legislation. These programs already exist in 17 states serving upwards of 255,000 students nationwide each year. A federal scholarship tax credit program would be the easiest route through Congress as it is typically considered tax policy and can be attached to budget bills that only require a simple majority in both the U.S. House and Senate.
Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) today introduced the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education Act.
The bill would expand the existing voucher program in the District of Columbia to students already enrolled in private schools and who meet the income requirements. It would also create a voucher program for families living on military bases and allow federal IDEA funds to follow students with disabilities to a private school if they participate in a state voucher program.
This is the third congressional session in which Scott has introduced this measure, which failed to pass the first two times.
With a new year and a new administration, there is a new energy among school choice supporters. Expect action at both the state and federal level in 2017.
Josh Cunningham is a senior policy specialist in NCSL's education program.