School choice advocates didn’t have much to cheer about in 2017, but New Hampshire lawmakers gave them something to celebrate not long after the ball dropped in New York City’s Times Square.
On Jan. 2, New Hampshire became the seventh state to approve an education savings account (ESA) program, providing state funds to low income and special needs students who want to attend private school or choose other educational options. Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, has pledged to sign the bill into law, but first it has to go before the House Finance Committee on April 4.
But like other ESA programs, the New Hampshire bill could face legal challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union argued before the vote that the program violated the state’s constitution because it sends public money to religiously affiliated schools. The state Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards agreed but then changed her mind before the final vote.
The constitutionality of ESA programs, and voucher programs before them, have proved a major stumbling block to school choice efforts. But recent court decisions, especially the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Trinity Lutheran case, suggest long-held bans on state money going to religious institutions won’t last much longer. Despite hopeful signs, the high court must still weigh in specifically on the issue of allowing parents to use state education funds as they see fit. Both sides are waiting on a case to litigate. New Hampshire eventually could be it.
Although New Hampshire gave school choice an early boost in 2018, it’s not clear whether the movement will fare much better than last year as the state legislative season progresses. Lawmakers in at least one reliably conservative state, Tennessee, have abandoned their attempt to pass a voucher program, admitting they don’t have the votes. Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey has tried for 11 years to push a voucher program through the legislature, and he’s no closer now than when he started. His failure speaks to the strength of public schools as a community institution (the same thing keeping another conservative state, Texas, from expanding choice options). As long as public schools aren’t terrible, voters would rather try to improve them than create competition.
At least one Tennessee lawmaker who opposes vouchers also credited the nation’s top school choice advocate, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, for dampening enthusiasm for public school alternatives. DeVos has become so unpopular she’s galvanized opposition to school choice, state Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat, told Chalkbeat Tennessee.
“Secretary DeVos is essentially an avowed enemy of public schools, and I think her views are out of step with the views of most Americans,” he said. “People pay taxes for expensive school facilities. Who wants to pay for a new gym and then have money siphoned away to private schools? People aren’t stupid.”
But school choice advocates aren’t giving up. During School Choice Week later this month, expect to see parents and children converge on state capitols, draped in yellow, to remind lawmakers that not every student wants to be a cog in the state education machine.