School Choice Expanding in Three States

Published May 1, 2006

Three states either created new school choice programs or expanded existing ones in late March–a trend suggesting the movement is gaining wider support among legislators.

In Ohio and Utah, lawmakers gave more students access to school choice.

Ohio’s EdChoice program–which had given students attending schools rated for three consecutive years as being in “academic emergency” the option of transferring to better-performing schools of their choosing–now gives students in schools on “academic watch”–the second-lowest rating–the same option. Some 50,000 students are expected to participate, an increase of 30,000.

In Utah, the Carson Smith Scholarship Program for autistic students was widened to include more schools, and the legislature removed a requirement that private schools must “specialize” in serving special-needs populations in order to participate.

On March 29, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) allowed a corporate tax credit program to become law without her signature, ending a year-long battle with legislators, during which she twice reneged on her promise to sign the measure into law.

“Our legislature just held the line,” said Vicki Murray, an independent education researcher in Scottsdale and former education policy director for the Goldwater Institute, a public policy think tank in Phoenix. “The governor gave her word last year that she would sign this, and she didn’t, but our legislators just wouldn’t back down. They knew there was a desperate need for more choices. Children need it, parents want it, and it’s good policy. A lot of state [legislatures] would have said, ‘We have a governor who is philosophically opposed to school choice, so we can’t get anything done,’ but ours said, ‘No, this is the right thing to do.'”

Serving Students

The Arizona tax credit program allows businesses to donate to nonprofit organizations that distribute vouchers for private schools to children who need them. Under the new law, the cap is set at $5 million a year, with vouchers worth up to $4,200 for K-8 students and $5,500 for high school, to serve low-income students–somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 students, Murray said. The law will expire in five years, requiring legislators to create and pass a new bill to keep the program alive after that.

“This is a great day for children who desperately need educational options,” Alliance for School Choice President Clint Bolick said in a March 30 statement. The Alliance for School Choice is a Phoenix-based nonpartisan organization that advocates for choice programs nationwide.

Arizona already has a personal tax credit program, which gives 21,000 students scholarships worth more than $28 million.

Gauging Interest

In Ohio, some state agencies expressed concern over the EdChoice program as it moved through the legislature. Jeannette Oxender, chief of staff to state schools superintendent Susan Tave Zelman, told the Associated Press on March 14 the state would “be a little crunched” for the administrative costs of enrolling thousands of newly eligible students if the bill passed. But by the time the full legislature approved the bill on March 30, additional funding had been found, Ohio Department of Education spokesman J. C. Benton said.

At press time the department was meeting with schools and families that want to participate when EdChoice Ohio officially launches this fall.

“The legislation gave us 14,000 slots, and we have tentative interest in about 8,500, which is about what we expected for the first year,” Benton said.

According to the Alliance for School Choice, so far this year 13 legislative houses in seven states–Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin–have passed school choice bills. Four states–Arizona, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin–have passed bills creating or expanding choice programs.

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

For more information on the EdChoice Scholarship Program, visit, click “Hot Topics,” then select “EdChoice Scholarship Program.”