As 2018 legislative sessions unfold across the country, the story of this year’s state-level advocacy for school choice continues to take shape.
A month ago, we took an early look at highlights from 2018 legislative sessions, which included some key wins that will expand many families’ access to the right educational opportunities for their children. Though not all legislative efforts have been successful, advocates are encouraged by the advancements made so far—and in some cases, already gearing up for renewed efforts.
Here, we take a deeper dive into several of this year’s school choice advocacy efforts, including examples of first-in-the-nation policies, incremental yet invaluable progress, and more.
Progress on ESAs & Course Access Win in Missouri
In Missouri, advocates report that diligent efforts to grow support for Senate Bill 612, which would have created the state’s first Education Savings Account (ESA) program, have helped turn a likely loss into a forward-looking win.
“We’ve ended up with with a previously untapped advocacy network among the state’s private schools—a network that understands that change may take years and that supports broader aspects of school choice than just ESAs,” said Nicholas Elmes, communications manager at Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM).
Unfortunately, unrelated political scandals and budgetary issues have largely kept Missouri’s legislature distracted from passing any major initiatives this year. Though SB612 and other similar ESA measures are unlikely to find success in 2018, CEAM’s extensive messaging, social media, and grassroots outreach efforts have laid the groundwork for an even stronger campaign in the future.
According to Elmes, this year’s most successful advocacy strategies centered around building capacity among SB612’s network of supporters. After a few initial testimonies at the bill’s first hearing, CEAM provided a day-long advocacy workshop for supporters. Participants received help in developing 30-second “elevator pitches,” plus additional media training. They were also prepared to contribute to CEAM’s Phone2Action campaign, which was used as the bill progressed through the session to encourage stakeholders to share their support for ESAs.
Though efforts to establish an ESA program will remain ongoing, Missouri’s school choice advocates did recently find success in expanding course access. House Bill 1606, which passed earlier this week, gives K-12 students the ability to take high-quality courses through a state-approved virtual setting, providing a much needed option for families in underperforming districts and in smaller or rural districts that might not be able to offer higher-level courses. The bill also allows students to choose to enroll in a full-time virtual school option that will be paid for by their home district or charter. (Read more from CEAM on the value of course access and virtual education.)
Elmes highlighted the importance of CEAM’s strategy to work on several pieces of school choice legislation at the same time. “While we are disappointed that it seems like we will not succeed in expanding charter schools or getting ESA legislation this year, we are ecstatic that we were successful in getting one of our three main focus areas this year across the finish line,” Elmes said.
“The passage of this course access/virtual education bill is a big win for the students of our state, as well as for traditional district schools struggling to staff educators in small and rural districts.”
Georgia Pairs Tax Credit Expansion with Increased Transparency
Election years are typically one of the toughest times to achieve meaningful change in state capitols—but the widespread popularity of school choice programs in Georgia meant that the political pressure of election season provided an advantage.
GeorgiaCAN worked with coalition partners as part of a multi-year effort that culminated in successfully advancing the most significant choice expansion of 2018 to date. HB217 nearly doubles the state’s student scholarship tax credit program from $58 million to $100 million annually, the program’s largest increase since its 2008 creation.
According to Michael O’Sullivan, GeorgiaCAN’s executive director, advocates were able to make the case for an expansion by highlighting the program’s popularity and support. They did this by using evidence from a 2016 ballot question that showed 75 percent support from the Republican primary electorate, huge demand among scholarship donors, and long student waitlists.
O’Sullivan said it was also important to pair the expansion with increased transparency measures. The resulting legislation includes better annual reporting that requires student scholarship organizations to disclose both the number of students they serve in income brackets based on the federal poverty level, and the average size of scholarships awarded by income bracket.
Click here to read more about policy highlights from Georgia’s 2018 legislative session.
Florida’s First-Of-Their-Kind Programs
Florida advocates contributed to an impressive list of key school choice wins this session, but of particular note are two first-of-their-kind school choice programs—one that uniquely supports early literacy and another that targets students who were subjected to bullying.
Across the country, many early literacy policies aim to help students achieve reading proficiency by third grade, but some students and families reach this deadline and can benefit from extra support. Established by Florida’s omnibus K-12 education bill, the Reading Scholarship Account program will benefit the families of struggling readers in grades 3-5. More than 19,000 families will have access to reimbursements of up to $500 for additional reading instruction/tutoring expenses, with a priority on serving English language learners.
In many school choice states, data shows that bullying and violence are cited as reasons parents seek out scholarship opportunities. This session, Florida legislators addressed the issue head on by creating the Hope Scholarship Program, a tax credit scholarship program that allows students who have been victims of bullying or acts of violence to receive a scholarship to attend the public or private school of their choice. The creation of these two programs, as well as the expansion of the state’s special needs ESA, continue to put Florida at the forefront of the school choice movement. (Read more on the 2018 session from the Foundation for Florida’s Future.)
What many expected to be a quiet 2018 has thus far turned out to be extremely successful for school choice advocates across the nation. With millions of additional dollars being allocated to new and existing programs, and groundwork laid for future wins, even more students will be able to choose the education that best fits their needs.