The school choice movement is riding high this year with multiple GOP-led states handing it legislative victories, but opponents are shrugging off the advances and predicting a tougher road ahead.
At least eight states have put new school choice policies on the books in the first five months of 2023, with some of them expanding to all K-12 students. Other measures are still up in the air.
The victories have been heavily celebrated by Republicans, but they may be running out of friendly territory.
So far this year, Arkansas, Iowa, Utah and Florida have enacted education savings accounts (ESAs) for all K-12 students, giving families a set amount of money they can use to put their children in other educational settings if they don’t want them to go to public school.
“I am not interested in being a caretaker of the failed status quo. I vowed to be a change-maker for our people,” Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) said. “Today, I am delivering on that promise, and will sign into law my transformational education plan, unleashing a new era of freedom, opportunity and prosperity for all.”
But in Texas, advocates have fought tooth and nail this session to get ESA legislation through only to get tripped up by their own party.
Rural Republicans in Texas have been hesitant to back school choice, a common trend for politicians in areas where there are elevated concerns about funding for public schools and fewer facilities for families to choose among.
“We don’t have the same economy of scale as larger districts,” Aaron Hood, president of the Texas Association of Rural Schools, told NBC News. “If we lose five or 10 students, that’s a teacher salary. But we can’t afford to have one less teacher, so now we’re cutting academic programs, we’re cutting sports, we’re cutting the things that this community relies on.”
This legislative session is the closest Texas has been to getting ESAs passed, but the eligibility for the program has severely dwindled as it moved through the legislature. The Texas Senate approved a version that would give the program to 5.5 million students, but the House Committee on Public Education attempted to scale it back to approximately 800,000 students.
In Texas, bills that pass the Senate are then sent to the respective committees in the House. Those committees must then approve the legislation before it is presented to the full House for a final vote.
The bill died in the House after the committee failed to approve the legislation for a full House vote on a Saturday deadline, but the governor has signaled this is not the end of the fight.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has stayed firm on his want for a more expansive school choice bill and threatened to veto the potential House version and bring the legislature into special sessions over the issue.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, proponents failed altogether this year to pass an expansive school choice law, despite Republican control over the state government.
Alex Ames, founder and current chairperson of the board for the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, said activists made three key moves in stopping the legislation: planning ahead after the 2022 session, working with the media to get their message out and making sure to put students in front of state legislators, especially when it came time to vote.
“We knew we needed to pick off at least six to eight Republican votes on the statehouse if we wanted to defeat this bill. It was getting harder and harder,” the 20-year-old said. “We had rural students in the offices of these lawmakers. We were sending thousands of phone calls from across the state to their offices, and we had data to show them exactly how their district is hurt by these cuts.”
And school choice advocates are quickly running out of states welcoming to their policies.
“I don’t see the types of programs that have been passed in red states this year … there’s no demand for them in blue states,” said Jennifer Berkshire, a professor in education studies at Yale University.
School choice, in some ways, had more bipartisan support in the past, particularly regarding charter schools, said Jon Valant, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy.
But as Republicans have moved past charter schools to more private school options, Democrats have chilled on the issue and now don’t show “a whole lot of interest in advancing new school choice policies, really of pretty much any kind,” Valant said.
The looming roadblocks for school choice advocates have put the minds of some Democrats at ease about the recent wins for the movement.
“At least for the DLCC, we are not concerned in the slightest that we are losing ground, as it relates to education, because Democrats have decades on decades of trust built with our communities, because we are the party, frankly, that sees the true value on public education,” said Gabrielle Chew, communications vice president for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Others, however, caution against a lackadaisical attitude on the issue.
“Democrats should be concerned because really the fight against vouchers is our biggest opportunity” to bring a group of people together who “can agree that those funds and our state legislature should belong to us, not sneaky privatization efforts,” Ames said.
While there could be some struggles ahead, school choice advocates still have plenty of opportunities as well.
North Carolina could be the next state to get ESA legislation on the books: The measure has passed the Republican-controlled state House and is heading to the GOP Senate. While the state’s Democratic governor might veto the bill, Republicans have a supermajority to override the opposition.
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