Schooled Reporting on education

Scaling back on school choice?

Education | Education savings account programs in Arizona and New Mexico suffer midterm setbacks
by Leigh Jones
Posted 11/14/18, 04:36 pm

School choice advocates are spinning last week’s election results in the most positive light possible.

“School choice victorious in the 2018 elections,” read the headline on a press release issued by the American Federation for Children.

That’s a bit of a stretch. While voters elected pro–school choice candidates in many states, they dealt a significant blow to the choice movement’s flagship initiative—the education savings account (ESA).

Choice advocates had hoped Arizona would become the first state in the nation with an ESA program open to all students. The state established what it calls its Empowerment Scholarship Account program in 2011 for special needs students and those in low-performing public schools. The accounts allow families to use a portion of their public school funding allotment for alternative education expenses, including private school tuition and homeschool curriculum. Last year, the Arizona legislature voted to expand the program to all students, capping enrollment at 30,000. Opponents collected enough signatures to place a repeal measure on last week’s ballot, and 65 percent of Arizona voters opted to roll back the expansion.

“Despite Tuesday’s vote, education savings accounts are alive and well in Arizona—and have plenty of room to grow,” wrote Jonathan Butcher, an education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, insisting choice supporters didn’t lose.

American Federation for Children President John Schilling said the expansion’s defeat “will still result in more Arizona families having the opportunity to access an ESA.”

Schilling and Butcher both focus on the numbers involved. Right now, the state can only increase ESA program enrollment by about 5,000 new students each year. But that cap will expire in 2019, opening the program to all eligible applicants—nearly 1 in 5 Arizona students. Butcher noted about 130,000 students in the state have special needs and could benefit from the educational flexibility offered by ESAs.

Robert Enlow, president of EdChoice, also focused on the opportunity created by last week’s defeat.

“We are disappointed that the ‘no’ vote will prevent thousands of new families from using the ESA program, but we take the result as a much-needed shot in the arm to educate Arizonans about—and build a broader coalition committed to—educational choice,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Arizona Republic.

Surveys show parents support school choice in theory, but ESAs have faced an uphill battle across the country. Nevada legislators approved a universal ESA program in 2015, and the state successfully fought off a legal challenge filed by public school supporters who said it violated the state constitution. But political realities stymied efforts to fund the program when Democrats took control of the state legislature in 2016. Last week, Democrats swept the state government, assuring the ESA program will remain dormant for the time being.

Other efforts to enact ESA programs have failed, even in reliably conservative states like Texas. So where’s the disconnect?

Rick Hess with the American Enterprise Institute thinks school choice as a policy initiative has fallen out of favor, becoming “vaguely Washington-ish in a way that it wasn’t before.” He predicts even politicians who support school choice will gravitate toward education-related issues that play well with a broad swath of middle-class voters: career and technical education, workforce readiness, college affordability and access, and early childhood education.

“Both sides like those issues,” he said, noting the potential for bipartisan efforts.

But school choice supporters aren’t giving up. Robert Enlow points to surveys that consistently show parents want more control over their children’s education.

“That tells us that educational choice isn’t going anywhere,” he wrote. “The more people experience that choice, the more they want it. But a greater opportunity is just over the horizon—the ability to develop a new school choice system for Arizona that benefits everyone.”

Associated Press/Photo by Will Kincaid Associated Press/Photo by Will Kincaid Foreign students at Dickinson State University in Dickinson, N.D.

College competition

The number of foreign students signing up to attend U.S. universities declined for a second straight year in 2017. University administrators blame the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies and nationalistic rhetoric. But the group studying the trend said that’s not the problem.

“We’re not hearing that students feel they can’t come here. We’re hearing that they have choices,” Allan Goodman, president and CEO of the Institute of International Education, told reporters. “For the first time, we have real competition.”

Despite the schools’ tendency to blame politics for a hit to their bottom line, the countries showing the biggest decline are two of America’s strongest allies: Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Mexico also sent fewer students, while China and India accounted for more than half of foreign students coming to the United States. The decrease in Saudi students followed the country’s decision to cut a program offering scholarships for students studying abroad.

While the United States has lost foreign students, Canada and Australia have gained them. Goodman said that competition should spur U.S. universities to improve recruitment efforts: “The U.S. has real competition. What we have going for us, though, is we have more space and capacity.” —L.J

Associated Press/Photo by Peter Gust Associated Press/Photo by Peter Gust Baraboo High School boys in front of the Sauk County Courthouse in Baraboo, Wis., in May 2018

Innocent wave or sinister salute?

A Wisconsin school district is struggling to understand why a group of about 60 boys would give what appears to be a Nazi salute in a pre-prom photo taken last spring. The photo went viral last week after someone discovered it on photographer Pete Gust’s website. Gust, whose son is one of the boys pictured, calls the photo an “ill-timed” shot taken as he asked the boys to wave goodbye to their parents. But at least one of the boys who did not make the sign says it was indeed meant as a racist gesture.

Administrators with the Baraboo School District are investigating, as are local police. Jewish groups, including the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland, condemned the photo. Several residents voiced dismay over the incident during a school board meeting on Monday. Nearly 100 Baraboo residents gathered Tuesday afternoon for a unity rally outside the Sauk County Courthouse, where the photo was taken in May.

The Baraboo incident comes amid a spike in hate crimes across the country. The FBI reported anti-Semitic incidents rose 37 percent in 2017. —L.J.

 The George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress The George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress Helen Keller

Texas textbook flap

The Texas Board of Education is back in the news again. This time it’s making headlines for a debate over lessons on Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller, as well as the intricacies of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Media outrage abounded, especially since the board refused to cut lessons on Moses’ influence on the Founding Fathers. After announcing plans to cut Clinton and Keller from the state’s recommended history curriculum, the board took a preliminary vote Tuesday to keep them in place. The board also voted to soften language blaming Arabs for the Israeli conflict but retain references to states’ rights as an issue that led to the Civil War.

The final vote on the new guidelines will come Friday. National outlets are, of course, interested in Texas because, as the nation’s second-largest textbook-buying market, it influences what publishers include in their subject offerings. —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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