States’ education reforms strengthen school choice, support teachers

David DorseyEducation

Now that most 2015 legislative sessions across the country are in the books, it’s time to look at meaningful education reform efforts in the form of new laws or strengthening existing efforts. School choice reforms led the way, with no less than eight states passing one or more pieces of legislation giving parents more control of where and how their children are educated. Laws were passed in three states aimed at providing additional support to teachers while simultaneously weakening union influence over them.

Educational Tax Credits

Three states, South Carolina, Alabama and Nevada, passed laws that created or expanded an educational tax credit program that allows students to attend the school of their choice, paid for by private donors who receive state tax credits. South Carolina’s Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children was expanded so families of special needs students can directly receive tax credits for tuition charges for their own children. Alabama also expanded their tax credit scholarship program to increase the number of students who can benefit. Nevada initiated their version of a tax scholarship program this year. The Nevada Educational Choice Scholarship Program allows tax credits to businesses that donate to a scholarship program for disadvantaged students to attend private school.

Private School Vouchers

Arkansas passed the Succeed Scholarship Program, which will allow all public school students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) the opportunity to attend a private school of choice through state-funded vouchers beginning in the 2016-17 school year. It is similar to the Florida voucher law for special needs students, which according to the Foundation for Excellence in Education has “shown tremendous educational outcomes for students with special needs.” (As an aside, it is a pleasure to note that in these times of highly charged partisanship, the bill passed both Arkansas legislative chambers unanimously.) In Ohio, the budget increased for their EdChoice voucher program, a school choice initiative directed at students in underperforming schools. Ohio also increased the voucher amount for the Jon Peterson Special Needs Voucher Award. Tennessee moved a step closer to a voucher program when the Senate passed the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act. It did not pass the House of Representatives this session, but can be carried over in its present form next year.

Educational Savings Account (ESA)

One of the hottest education reforms in the country is the ESA. The general concept of ESAs is that the state gives money directly to families, who are responsible for spending it on their children’s education in a school of their choice. Arizona was the first state to pass their version in 2011 and it has now expanded to make over 250,000 students eligible. Florida became the second state to have an ESA law in 2014. Three more states passed laws this year creating their own versions of the ESA: Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada. In Mississippi, the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act will serve 500 special needs students in its first year. Tennessee’s Individualized Education Act will make up to 18,000 special needs students eligible to receive money to spend on the school of their choice, including home schooling.

Nevada passed the most comprehensive ESA, described by the Foundation for Excellence in Education as “the strongest piece of school choice legislation in America.” What sets Nevada’s ESA apart from the other four is that is available to all students in the state, not just those with special needs or in underperforming schools.

Georgia made significant progress toward passing an ESA law. The Georgia Senate passed an ESA bill during the first year of the current session and it can be picked up in its present status in the second year of the session.

Nevada also passed legislation to strengthen charter schools. They appropriated $10 million to create and operate charter schools for students who live in poverty and passed a bill that will convert low-performing schools into charter schools.

Teacher support

A new Arkansas law allows teacher to join or quit a union at any time, not just in a narrow window that existed prior. Nevada passed two teacher support laws. One requires districts to set aside money to pay teachers based on performance with a priority on raising student achievement. Also, those targeted funds are barred from being part of collective bargaining. The other law requires lay-off decisions be based on performance under the statewide evaluation system, eliminating the existing practice of “last in, first out.” Tennessee’s Educator Protection Act has the potential for the biggest impact on union membership. It provides teacher liability insurance to all public school teachers at no cost to them. For those not familiar with union benefits, liability insurance is probably the number one reason teachers choose to join. With that benefit now provided by the state, teachers’ unions in Tennessee could see a significant drop-off in membership.

It’s time for reform to be a priority in Kansas

As the Kansas legislature undertakes the daunting task of crafting a new finance law, it would be the perfect time to include some education reform right here at home. Kansas currently has a tax credit scholarship program that is capped at $10 million and is accessible only to students in the lowest performing schools in the state. However, school choice should be available to a much broader base. Passing an ESA would be a good start. It could range from only serving special needs students to as universal as in Nevada.

The importance of school choice bears repeating: anything that gives students and families more options in choosing the path for their education is good. It is good for students, families, communities and the state. Increasing and improving choice options in Kansas would also help strengthen the public school system because it would give them an incentive to improve the educational outcomes of students.

As those several reform-minded states serve as a reminder, public education is supposed to be for the student, not the institution.

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