Academic journal article Education Next

School Choice Marches Forward: 2011 a Year of New Laws and New Lawsuits

Academic journal article Education Next

School Choice Marches Forward: 2011 a Year of New Laws and New Lawsuits

Article excerpt

One year ago, the Wall Street Journal dubbed 2011 "the year of school choice," opining that "this year is shaping up as the best for reformers in a very long time." Such quotes were bound to circulate among education reformers and give traditional opponents of school choice, such as teachers unions, heartburn. Thirteen states enacted new programs that allow K-12 students to choose a public or private school instead of attending their assigned school, and similar bills were under consideration in more than two dozen states.

With so much activity, school choice moved from the margins of education reform debates and became the headline. In January 2012, Washington Post education reporter Michael Alison Chandler said school choice has become "a mantra of 21st-century education reform," citing policies across the country that have traditional public schools competing for students alongside charter schools and private schools.

"It took us 20 years to pass the first 20 private school-choice programs in America and in the 21st year we passed 7 new programs," says Scott Jensen with the American Federation for Children (AFC), a school-choice advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "So we went from passing, on average, one each year, to seven in one fell swoop."

Programs enacted in 2011 include

* a tax-credit scholarship program in North Carolina

* Arizona's education savings account system for K-12 students

* Maine's new charter school law, which brings the total number of states, along with the District of Columbia, with charter schools to 42

* a voucher program in Indiana with broad eligibility rules.

School-choice laws also passed in Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., Oklahoma, and Ohio, some as new reforms and some that expanded existing options.

Now, in 2012, it is still not clear whether the legislative advance of school-choice bills in 2011 made more education options available or simply ushered in a bevy of new lawsuits. Maybe both. Many of the laws, including Indiana's voucher program, Arizona's savings accounts, and a new voucher program in Douglas County, Colorado, were challenged in court shortly after passage. These legal challenges stalled reform and kept the school choice movement fighting for a clear identity. Is school choice just for certain student groups, like low-income children, or can it actually change the public school system?

For some laws, such as Indiana's, a legal challenge did not prevent thousands of students from participating in the program's first year. In other cases, as with Colorado's voucher initiative, courts shut down the program just as the school year began, leaving hundreds of students uncertain as to whether they could remain at their new schools.

"Legal challenges to school-choice programs have become as inevitable and painful as death and taxes," says Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute. Bolick has defended school-choice laws around the country, from Arizona to Ohio to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We should view legal challenges as a good sign that we are accomplishing something," he says.

Perhaps 2011 was an unusual year for school reform only because of the number of school-choice programs enacted, which was significant by any measure, but not because students swarmed to the new programs (Indiana is a notable exception). We must wait to see which laws will survive legal challenges and whether students will enroll while judges consider the programs' constitutionality. While school-choice laws arrived en masse in 2011, and the laws that passed are bolder than ever, lawsuits keep the systemic change reformers hope for just out of reach.


On May 5, 2011, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels signed into law the most inclusive voucher program in American history. Indiana's "Choice Scholarships" were designed with broad eligibility rules that include middle-class and low-income students. …

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