A new chapter of the decades-long school choice debate quietly began with the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a statewide school voucher system last September. But that debate could turn into a roar with the selection of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary in the new administration.
DeVos is a longtime vocal supporter of school choice and the voucher system and her appointment will be seen as a boon to proponents of the movement in the states.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed Senate Bill 302 into law in June 2015. The law enables the parent of any child to receive their child’s state educational funding in the form of a state grant administered through an educational savings account (ESA).
Under the bill, parents can apply to have their child’s per-pupil educational allotment — $5,710 per year those living in poverty and $5,139 for others — deposited into an ESA. Parents can then use the funds to pay for things like private school tuition, tutoring or school supplies.
Legislatures in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee have enacted voucher systems in recent years. However, those laws apply to only children who meet specific criteria — those with special needs, those attending failing schools, children of military families, to name a few. But Nevada quietly became the first state to make a statewide voucher system available to every child in the state — a move that could have a big impact on the future of public education in America.
The First Domino? Statewide School Choice in Nevada
Senate Bill 302 spent much of the last year in legal limbo. Legal challenges led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and parents’ groups argued that the law violated a state constitutional requirement that “a uniform system of common schools” be provided, and a prohibition on public school funding going to religious organizations.
An amicus brief filed in the case by the Las Vegas NAACP, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center argued that ESAs “will provide little or no benefit for the majority of Nevada students” who will remain in public schools.
“Among the over 4,000 pre-applications (seeking school vouchers) filed between August and December 2015, only 28 are from Nevada’s 18 poorest zip codes, or those with median incomes below $25,000,” the amicus brief states. “On the other hand, most of the pre-applications, 3,135 or 75 percent, came from households residing in zip codes with incomes between $50,000 and $100,000.”
In September, however, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the law. The state’s high court overturned a lower court’s ruling that Senate Bill 302 violated the Nevada Constitution. Justices ruled 4-2 that how lawmakers proposed funding ESAs violated state law — but the court upheld the law itself against arguements that it was unconstitutional.
At the time, DeVos, as chairman of the American Federation for Children led the cheers for the lawsuit’s defeat. “Today’s ruling is a victory for Nevada’s students who are in need of school choice. We know the one-size-fits-all system is broken … We remain confident that this vital program is constitutional.”
Karen Gray, a citizen outreach director with the pro-school choice Nevada Policy Research Institute, wrote that the ruling was a “landmark decision, marking a pivotal change to the face of education in this country.” Gray added that the decision should be celebrated for the “groundbreaking movement that it is.”
Less than a week after the Nevada Supreme Court announced its decision, Republican lawmakers in the Wisconsin State Assembly included a proposal to advance ESA legislation in a caucus agenda for the 2017-2018 legislative session.
A Look Back
School choice has been on a slow march at the state level over the last 20 years, but the pace of the movement has grown noticeably quicker in recent years. With DeVos’ appointment at the federal level that crusade has gotten a huge boost.
In 1999, there were 1,484 charter schools in the country, and more than 250,000 students attended them. Thirty-six states had charter laws, and 11 states allowed private schools to convert to charter schools, according to U.S. Department of Education national study entitled “State of Charter Schools, 2000.”
By 2014, the number of children enrolled in public charter schools had increased to 2.5 million, and the number of public charter schools had increased to 6,500, according to data collected the National Center for Education Statistics. State legislatures advanced a flurry of school choice and charter school legislation in the intervening years.
Twenty-seven states enacted 83 bills supporting school choice in 2008, 20 states enacted 36 bills in 2009, 24 states enacted 39 bills in 2010, 13 states enacted 19 bills in 2011, 18 states enacted 26 bills in 2013, and 16 states enacted 31 bills in 2014, the National Conferences of State Legislatures (NCSL) reports.
Tim Storey, the director of leader services and legislative training at NCSL, said that much of the activity on state issues like school choice and education funding reforms could be attributed to “record Republican control of states; ‘record’ as in American history.”
“States are mostly unified under one party right now,” Storey said. “It’s easier to move forward on issues when you have the governor, the house, the senate. They’re in a time of very unified government.”
Indeed, the number of state houses with both chambers controlled by Republicans has increased significantly in the last five years. In 2010, Republicans held complete control of legislatures in 14 states. By 2015, they were in complete control in 30 states, the PEW Research Center reports. Following this November’s election, they now control both chambers in 32 states. Democrats meanwhile are at their lowest level since the Civil War, having total control in just five states.
So, as state legislatures begin their 2017 legislative sessions with Republican majorities, Nevada’s recent victory in implementing a statewide voucher system, plus the federal appointment of Betsey DeVos, could signal the beginning of a new chapter in school choice.