For many families, the past year has been defined by two new experiences: adapting to the protocols, anxiety and grief associated with life in the coronavirus pandemic and taking on a new role in their children’s schooling by helping with remote classes, organizing “pandemic pods” and trying to decide whether to let their kids go back to their classrooms.
Although more than 90% of districts are now offering some in-person instruction for at least some students, and more than a third are offering fully in-person instruction for all students, the experiences of the last year are leading state lawmakers to consider significant changes to their states’ educational offerings as they look to next school year and beyond. In one major development growing from the pandemic experience, legislatures in at least 37 states are considering bills that would expand or introduce private school choice programs.
Private School Enrollment Up
During the pandemic, some private schools saw a surge in enrollment. With public school districts remaining closed to full-time in-person instruction longer than many private schools, and research indicating the detrimental impacts of remote learning for many students, families with the means to do so sought to enroll their kids in private education. School choice measures, including vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts, provide funding for families to send their children to private school or to spend money on other educational expenses.
Many scholars and observers have raised concerns over the equity impacts of pandemic-era private schooling trends, with the situation in San Francisco providing a stark example: A year after schools first closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak, the one-third of students in the city enrolled in private school—disproportionately high-income or white, or both—by and large have the option to attend school in-person full-time. Meanwhile, public school students—disproportionately low-income or students of color, or both—remain in full-time online instruction. Though assessment and attendance data remains incomplete, experts worry that the trends in private school enrollment and online learning may exacerbate gaps between more- and less-advantaged students. Depending on your perspective, school choice measures could exacerbate or help to remedy these inequities.
State Action on School Choice
Indiana Representative Robert Behning (R), a longtime proponent of private school choice, is the sponsor in this session of new measures to enact an education savings account program in his state, part of a state budget currently under consideration. Education savings accounts, or education scholarship accounts (ESAs), unlike the better-known school vouchers, provide state funding that families may use for a range of educational expenses, including not only private school tuition (available through voucher programs) but also curriculum, technology and assessments associated with home education.
For families who feel a nonpublic school is the right fit, my legislation would reduce financial barriers and help more students attend these schools. —Indiana Representative Robert Behning
“Before 2020, a parent might not have considered enrolling their student in virtual school, but now they’ve seen their student succeed and want to continue with that option,” Behning told NCSL. “Other families got a clearer look at their children’s strengths and weaknesses, and now want to send their student to a school that challenges them and helps them grow. For families who feel a nonpublic school is the right fit, my legislation would reduce financial barriers and help more students attend these schools.”
Behning also is working to establish education scholarship accounts, which would provide eligible families, especially those with students with disabilities, direct funding to pay for tuition or education-related expenses at an Indiana school.
Behning is not alone among his colleagues in state legislatures. Of the more than 120 bills expanding or introducing private school choice programs that legislatures have considered in this session, more than a third address ESAs. More than half of the bills that would create new private school choice programs are focused on this school choice mechanism. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, states have been less constrained by “Blaine amendments,” the state constitutional restrictions intended to prevent the use of public funding for religious education. Such restrictions previously led legislators to use tax credits, rather than state outlays, to fund private school choice. The experience of COVID-19, with families learning about online curricula and trying their hand at homeschooling, may encourage a more flexible type of school choice, like ESAs.
Some state school choice efforts have grown directly out of the pandemic experience. Responding to parental frustration with online instruction, bills in Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana and New Hampshire would introduce new ESA programs that include as an eligible group students whose schools have largely operated remotely during the pandemic. Several bills, including one in Wisconsin, would introduce microschooling or hybrid homeschooling—new terms that reflect the pandemic experience of many families—as educational options in the future. As has been the case for years, current private school choice proposals vary in their eligibility, accountability and funding mechanisms; several years ago, NCSL published a report discussing these issues in depth. West Virginia’s legislature recently approved its first state private school choice program; the remainder of this year’s session is likely to see further action on these proposals in states across the country.
Views on School Choice Efforts Differ
To advocates of the school choice movement, the pandemic demonstrates the power of families to make educational decisions for their children when given the opportunity. “The pandemic opened lots of families’ eyes to the ways in which traditional schooling was not working for them,” said Michael McShane, director of national research for EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group. “Whether it was school politics that they had less say in than they thought they did or school schedules that didn’t match with the rhythms of their family or a host of other disconnections, families are more open to new and different schools and school models than ever before.”
For McShane and other advocates, the pandemic exposed families to opportunities available through private or home education; school choice programs, they say, would help more families take advantage of these opportunities.
Vouchers steal away already scarce funding from public schools and give it to private schools that are unaccountable to the public and are not open to all students. —Becky Pringle, president, National Education Association
To some opponents of private school choice programs, efforts currently underway in many states contribute to inequity and segregation in K-12 education and divert needed resources from public schools facing an unprecedent crisis. Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said in a statement to NCSL, “Vouchers steal away already scarce funding from public schools and give it to private schools that are unaccountable to the public and are not open to all students. They were first created by those who desired to keep schools segregated, and vouchers continue to perpetuate this racist history today. Using the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic crisis to funnel federal relief funds, intended for public schools to unaccountable private schools, is the last thing we should be doing.”
Private school choice programs have been a matter of contentious debate since their first enactment in the 1990s. With unprecedented federal support for K-12 education available through the American Rescue Plan and previous rounds of coronavirus aid, the debate is far from over. Decisions about school choice not only determine the flow and endpoint of education funding dollars, but also embody states’ vision of how to meet their responsibility to provide a quality K-12 education for all their young residents. Long after the end of the pandemic, decisions lawmakers make today will affect how young people learn and how communities relate to their schools.
Benjamin Olneck-Brown is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.