School pick winner but teachers union empire strikes back

The school choice movement is winning like never before, but defenders of government schools are doing everything they can to protect their monopoly.

Following prolonged school closures, second-rate Zoom schools and politicized classrooms, 19 states passed 32 new or expanded education choice policies last year, making it “the year of choice of education”.

The broadest new school choice policy passed in 2021 was the West Virginia Hope Scholarship, a K-12 Education Savings Account (ESA) that allows almost any family, regardless of their income, to transfer money from their children’s publicly funded education to the education providers of their choice, whether public, charter, private or home school.

All West Virginia students leaving public school or entering kindergarten are eligible to receive an ESA starting this fall.

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Arizona went even further on Thursday when Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law the nation’s broadest educational choice policy. Just over a decade ago, Arizona became the first state to offer ESAs, but the policy was initially limited to students with special needs. State lawmakers have repeatedly expanded eligibility, and now all K-12 students in Arizona will be eligible to receive an ESA. These are huge gains for American families, but proponents of school choice shouldn’t let their understandable euphoria turn into complacency. Defenders of the status quo are vigorously mounting a counteroffensive to delay, block and undo choice reforms.

We have entered the “The Empire Strikes Back” phase of the school choice fight.

In West Virginia, choice opponents funded by the unions immediately sued the state to block the implementation of the ESA. On Wednesday, a trial court judge — who had been endorsed and funded by teachers’ unions — sided with the plaintiffs, declaring ESAs unconstitutional and barring the state from implementing the policy.

More than 3,000 students had already registered for ESAs, expecting to be able to use them in the next academic year. Now they are in limbo until the lawsuit is resolved.

According to the judge, the state constitution’s requirement that the legislature provide “a complete and efficient system of free schools” means it can only pay for public schools and nothing more. But a simple reading of the text finds no such limitation. The requirement to do X does not imply a restriction to do Y and Z in addition to X.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has already said his office will appeal the ruling, which he called “legally incorrect.” He expects the state Supreme Court to reverse it.

On the same day, Arizona’s anti-school-choice group Save Our Schools (SOS) declared its intention to return the ESA expansion to a ballot. If they can muster the required 119,000 valid signatures by September 25, the expansion will be put on hold for two years pending the results of the referendum in the 2024 election.

SOS is apparently confident of stopping the expansion due to the success of their similar referendum, Prop 305, in 2018. In that referendum, voters in Arizona rejected an ESA expansion by a margin of almost two against one.

Or did they? This is the narrative that SOS wants people to believe, but the reality is much more complicated. Although voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 305, their motives are unclear.

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Some major school choice groups, such as the American Federation for Children, have also opposed Proposition 305, although for a very different reason. Because of Arizona’s Voter Protection Law, any policy passed by voters requires a three-quarters supermajority of the legislature to change. This meant that the proposal’s cap of just 30,000 ESA would, for all intents and purposes, be set in stone. It would also have made it almost impossible to change the policy in the future.

In other words, many voters opposed Proposition 305 not because it went too far, but because it didn’t go far enough.

This time it’s different. ESA’s recent expansion to Arizona doesn’t limit the number of participating students, so national school choice groups will be battling it out. Additionally, public support for school choice has reached unprecedented heights following the COVID shutdowns. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, two-thirds of Arizona citizens support ESAs, as do three-quarters of parents of school-aged children.

Defenders of the public school empire in Arizona and West Virginia worry that if families get a taste of education choice, they won’t want to give it up. It is easier to prevent them from exercising their ability to choose in the first place than to try to take that choice away from them later.

Even opponents of school choice understand that in the long run, they cannot stop its progress because families want more education options. All opponents can hope for is to slow him down. For the sake of all the kids, who need more options now, let’s hope they don’t make it.

About Ellie Cohn

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