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Pandemic, culture wars revive the political thrust of the “school choice”.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Nichole Mason first became concerned when she learned administrators at her children’s public school were allowing transgender students to use the girls’ restrooms. Her frustrations escalated when she felt her children’s next school went too far with how they enforced COVID regulations during the pandemic.

Now, the mother of five is among a growing number of parents in the United States who are channeling those frustrations into a renewed push to get state legislators to create taxpayer-funded programs to help parents pay for other educational options including school private, home school or hybrid models. In Utah, a proposal would allow about 5,000 students to apply for $8,000 scholarships.

“If right now my son’s school is getting $10,000 a year to educate him, he’s not thriving and I could do a better job educating him with $8,000,” said Mason, who co-founded the Utah chapter of the Parents group United. “Then I feel a moral obligation to give him an outstanding education instead of a satisfactory one.”

At least a dozen other states are considering similar legislation in what has emerged as a pivotal year for school choice battles.

With fresh memories of pandemic-era school closures and battles over curricula, especially how gender and race are taught, Mason and legions of parents like her are walking to the marble floors of their fields government to fight to create education savings accounts, also known as ESAs. While they vary, these voucher-style offerings have been introduced in states including Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.

  • Becky Elder, who helped found the Northfield School of the Liberal Arts in Wichita, Kansas, speaks at a rally for school ‘choice’ proposals with conservative GOP lawmakers pushing to give tax dollars to parents so they can use the money to cover private and homeschooling costs, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan.. Years of pandemic restrictions and battles over curricula have encouraged a push from Republican lawmakers and school choice advocates to channel public funds to private and religious schools in at least a dozen statehouses. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

    Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS/John Hanna

    No state has more pending legislation than Virginia, where Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won his 2021 gubernatorial race in the liberal-leaning state after making grievances about education a key campaign tenet.

    Additionally, GOP governors in Oklahoma and Nevada have suggested plans to push for voucher-style policies, and politicians in Arkansas and Florida have said they want to expand pre-existing programs that are currently limited to certain student populations.

    “School vouchers and education savings accounts have been in retreat for a while. They were kind of popular in the ’90s and then charter schools sort of displaced them,” said Rob Shand, professor of education policy at American University.

    Now, he added, “choice schoolers are trying to capitalize on discontent with the public school system. They see some sort of moment to try to push to push for some more choice-friendly or alternative policies.

    If implemented, the education savings accounts could transform the nature of the state government’s relationship with K-12 schools and deepen the contrasts between the aspect of education in red versus blue states.

    Funneling public funds to private schools is a decades-old idea that first caught on in the 1990s. Today, “choice school” policies in conservative states include vouchers, scholarships, education savings accounts, and tax credits.

    Tax credits allow families to deduct amounts from their overall tax burden to be used for alternatives to public schooling. Vouchers traditionally allow parents to withdraw funds that would otherwise be used to educate their children in public schools and direct them towards tuition for accredited private or religious schools. Education savings accounts and scholarship programs are more expansive, giving parents additional freedom in how they can spend the funds, including for homeschooling.

    ESAs have steadily grown in popularity over traditional vouchers due to legal challenges in states with constitutional limits on sending public money directly to religious organizations.

    There are now statewide ESA programs in Arizona and West Virginia. And in Tennessee, where a court ruled last year that a voucher program in the Nashville and Memphis area is constitutional, efforts are underway to extend it to the Chattanooga area.

    In Utah, where the bill passed the House and Senate this week, lawmakers have matched the bill with teacher hikes. Although a school choice lobbyist said he plans to “destroy public education” with the proposal, lawmakers in favor are hesitant to call their idea “good” and point out that no more than $42 million could be used for scholarships. of study. In Iowa, students with vouchers would receive $7,600 — the amount sent to schools as part of the state’s per-pupil formula — and an additional $1,200 dollars would be sent to public schools in their district. In South Carolina, only children from Medicaid-eligible families could apply.

    Proponents say the pandemic has crystallized the limits of a “one size fits all” approach and hope the expansion of options will spur competition and improve all schools. They’re notching up wins, even in states where proposals previously failed to gain traction.

    Opponents such as Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, argue that the dollars would be better spent supporting chronically underfunded public schools. They see the programs as a stepping stone toward dismantling traditional public schools and further privatizing primary and secondary education.

    Hobbs wants to undo the expansion of a school voucher program backed last year by his GOP predecessor. His office said this month it would cost $1.5 billion over the next decade.

    The proposals have also ignited fury and resistance from teachers’ unions and their Democratic Party allies, who note that the lump sum is not enough to cover most private schools. As a result, they argue, the programs will target affluent and middle-class students, further strengthen educational inequalities, and lead to worse outcomes on a statewide basis.

    “This is the crack in the wall,” said Utah Teacher of the Year 2021 John Arthur. “After it cracks, the splinters will come. Once people get the idea of ​​public money going to private schools and get more comfortable with it, then the amount of money withdrawn will increase.”

    Both sides noted that the number of proposals under consideration this year exceeds previous years.

    “It’s happening all over the nation, where parents — some are waking up and some are working up the courage to speak up about their children’s educational journey,” said Wade Moore, a bishop of a nondenominational Christian Faith Center at a rally in Topeka . “We have new parents, millennial parents. They were born into choice. They have always had a choice in everything except education.


    Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. AP writers Cheyanne Mumphrey in Phoenix; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; James Pollard in Columbia, South Carolina; and Scott McFetridge in Des Moines, Iowa contributed reporting.

    Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, transmitted, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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