School Library

Tennessee, Texas, And Ohio Are Gearing Up For A School Choice Showdown In 2024

School Library
School Library (TFP File Photo) By Kate Anderson

School choice is going to be a hot-button issue next year as several states are set to propose legislation expanding education options, while others are gearing up to defend against lawsuits claiming voucher programs are unconstitutional and an “existential threat” to public schools.

School choice advocates passed legislation in NebraskaFloridaOhio and other states in 2023, with a major victory in Oklahoma as well after the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board approved an application for a Catholic online school in June, the first religious charter school in the country. Several states are looking to follow their lead in 2024 and expand education options for parents, while others have become the target of lawsuits by public education advocates, who argue that voucher programs are unconstitutional.

In Tennessee, Republican state Rep. Mark White, who is a former teacher, is hoping to put legislation on the agenda in January that would expand the state’s current voucher program from just three counties to all 95, according to The Tennesseean.

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White co-sponsored legislation for the original program back in 2019 but said that “it’s time” to bring school choice to the rest of the state.

“It just baffles me that we are pro-choice on so many things, but we still struggle with freedom of choice when it comes to schools,” White told The Tennesseean.

The original program received significant pushback from both Republicans and Democrats, eventually going to the state’s Supreme Court to settle the issue in 2022 after a lawsuit was filed, according to The Tennesseean. Over 3,400 students have applied to the program this year, but Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro said that there is not enough data to show the program has been successful enough to justify expanding it.

A “good education is not a luxury or a one-size-fits-all solution” and parents need more choices now than ever after many children suffered from significant learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, White argued in an op-ed for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.

Lawmakers are also going head to head on the issue in Texas, where Republicans recently failed to pass school choice legislation despite Gov. Greg Abbott calling four special sessions, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The House voted 84-63 Friday to take a proposal for an education savings account program out of a $7.6 billion education funding bill, with 21 Republicans joining the Democrats on the issue.

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Abbott, however, promised to continue “advancing school choice in the Texas Legislature and at the ballot box,” in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman. He also said that he is “in it to win it” and “will maintain the fight for parent empowerment until all parents can choose the best education path for their child.”

In July, Ohio passed a budget for 2024 and 2025 that extended the state’s current voucher program to families making up to 450% of the poverty line or $135,000 for a family of four, according to the Dayton Daily News. The state is expected to spend an estimated $2 billion on the voucher program and families who are accepted will receive 12% more funding than they had in years prior, with high school students able to get up to $8,407, and kindergarten through eighth-grade students getting up to $6,165.

Despite this, a lawsuit filed in January 2022 by the Ohio Coalition of Equity & Adequacy of School Funding (OCEASF) is set to go to trial next year regarding the state’s voucher program, and nearly a third of public school districts have joined the lawsuit as of this year, according to the Cleveland Scene. OCEASF argues that the program “poses an existential threat” and has been taking away vital funding from public schools, according to court documents.

Republicans claimed, however, that the program allows parents to choose what is best for their child and dismissed arguments that it takes funding from public schools, noting that the program created a separate funding apparatus for those who choose private education, according to NBC4 Columbus, a local news station.

“That money doesn’t get taken from the public schools now, so that’s the great thing about it,” state Rep. Jay Edwards said.

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Oklahoma, Wisconsin and South Carolina are facing lawsuits as well after state officials adopted school choice policies. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is set to hand down a ruling any day now on whether or not the state’s 32-year-old program that gives parents vouchers for their children to attend private schools is unconstitutional since it funds private entities, according to The Associated Press.

On Oct. 26, a group of parents, teachers and advocates filed a lawsuit in South Carolina, arguing that the state’s new school voucher program, which was passed in April, violates the “no aid” clause in the constitution barring the state from funding religious and private schools, according to The State.

“Our constitution reflects a binding commitment that the resources of our state be used to fully fund our public schools, which serve all students,” said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association. “Instead of private school vouchers, we should invest in our public schools by reducing class size, addressing the teacher shortage crisis and increasing parental involvement.”

In July, public school advocates in Oklahoma made a similar argument in their lawsuit, claiming that the state could not approve a charter for the St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School because the school will discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity that is not in line with Catholic doctrine. They also claim that the charter violates the state’s constitution because it will be funding religious indoctrination.

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt previously told the Daily Caller News Foundation that he hopes to “unlock more private” options for education in the future.

OCEASF, White and Abbott’s office did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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