July | August 2017







States Weigh Options For School Choice Programs

By Elizabeth Whitehouse, CSG director of education and workforce development
School choice is a key focus of the new Trump administration. This was reflected in the president’s recently released federal budget, which proposed increases in investments for public and private school choice by $1.4 billion compared to the 2017 annualized continuing resolution level—all while advancing a budget with a proposed 13 percent decrease in education funding.
During his first speech to Congress in February, President Donald Trump also announced steps toward creating a national school choice program.
"I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children," Trump said. "These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them." 
The Trump administration has not provided specifics, but education policy experts anticipate that the most likely way to implement a school choice program at a national level would be through a tax credit program.
There are several models of school choice used in the states, including vouchers, charter schools and scholarship tax credits. Each program type has its proponents and opponents.
Voucher Programs
Voucher programs provide parents a portion of the public funding set aside for their children’s education to be used for private schools if they wish to educate their children outside of the public system. Such vouchers are available to parents in 14 states, including Indiana, which serves more than 34,000 students through this school choice model.

Indiana House Education Committee Chair Rep. Robert Behning introduced legislation, House Bill 1004, this session to expand access to preschool and to expand access to the state’s voucher program. The bill passed the House and is now in the Senate, but it was stripped of the expanded voucher program access in committee. 
“I don’t see this (bill) as giving kids a lot more opportunities to a voucher because these kids are already income eligible,” Behning said. “So it is really not expanding vouchers at all, just giving them the ability to do what they think is best.”
The bill awaits a vote by the full Senate and then would be considered by a conference committee to try to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill before going to Gov. Eric Holcomb for his consideration.
Charter Schools
Other states have had legislation introduced on charter schools during the 2017 sessions. Charter schools are independently run public schools exempt from many of the rules and regulations governing traditional public schools.
Kentucky recently became the 44th state to adopt charter schools. Rep. John “Bam” Carney, House Education Committee chair, sponsored the charter school legislation, which was vigorously debated in both the House and Senate chambers.

During the debate on the bill in the Senate, Minority Leader Ray Jones expressed his opposition to the bill.
“If there's a problem with public schools, the state should address those problems and not create new schools,” Jones said. He also voiced concerns that charter schools "will lead to economic and, in many cases, racial segregation."
During the House debate, Carney said public charter schools would give Kentuckians more choices when it comes to public education.
“The reality is we have a system that does not work for every child in Kentucky,” said Carney. “We teach to the middle. Too many folks are being left behind.” 
Kentucky House Bill 520 was signed by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin on March 22, allowing charter schools in the state.
Tax Credits
Tax credit programs take two forms in school-choice policy: individual tax credits and scholarship tax credits.
Individual tax credits are programs in which parents can receive state income tax relief for approved educational expenses. They are used in five states—Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and South Carolina. Scholarship tax credits are found in 17 states and they allow taxpayers to receive tax credits when they donate to nonprofits that provide private-school scholarships.

While scholarship tax credits have gained momentum in recent years, the conversation is now at the federal level on this school choice policy. As U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos looks at ways to increase school choice under Trump’s direction, scholarship tax credits are seen as one of the possible vehicles to accomplish his education policy agenda.
“It's a little bit early to talk about details,” said DeVos about the proposed increase in school choice funding.  “But I think conceptually what we'd like to see is whatever is rolled out at the national or federal level is to enhance what's going on in the states.”
School choice continues to be a hotly debated issue in state capitols across the nation no matter what the vehicle. Vouchers, charter schools and scholarship tax credits remain central to the debate on how to best provide educational opportunities for children.