State Legislators Draft Model School Choice Bills

Published September 1, 2006

State legislators from across the country met in late July to advance education policy and craft model legislation during the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 33rd Annual Meeting.

After remarks from Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. Milton Friedman assessing the state of education reform in the United States, ALEC’s education task force convened to develop new strategies for reform efforts and to share experiences from past and current programs.

Special-Needs Students

With states such as Florida, Ohio, and Utah touting successful scholarship programs for students with special needs, more states are now considering similar programs.

In 2004, task force members passed the Special Needs Scholarship Act–a model bill for laws that offer students with special needs scholarships to attend the public or private school of their choice. In states such as Delaware, Kansas, and Ohio, versions of the bill have been introduced, though all have been stymied in state legislatures.

In response, ALEC’s education task force considered new model legislation this summer for laws that would offer scholarships to a small but rapidly growing segment of special-needs students. Inspired by Ohio state Rep. Jon Peterson’s (R-Delaware) Autism Scholarship Program in Ohio, which serves more than 500 students, the Autism Scholarship Act would offer scholarships to autistic students.

“Some of our most vulnerable children are trapped in failing schools and programs,” Peterson said. “This program is working well in Ohio, and the ALEC designation is a significant step toward expanding the program to scale nationally.”

Growing Population

U.S. Department of Education data reveal more than 165,000 autistic students received federal support provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004. Most states have seen dramatic increases in the number of autistic students over the past few years.

Proponents of special-needs scholarships note autistic students do not all respond to teaching approaches the same way. As a result, they say, parental choice is the best way to ensure each child receives the most appropriate educational services to meet his or her needs.

Other Student Populations

With the June 2006 adoption of Arizona’s innovative scholarship program for students in foster care (see “Arizona Passes School Choice Measures, page 1), the education task force will likely consider a version of the program for model legislation when it meets this December in Phoenix. The program promises to alleviate the instability of traditional, residence-based school assignment, which can be highly disruptive for students in foster care.

“Foster students will benefit academically and socially by having the same teacher and friends instead of moving from school to school,” explained state Sen. Linda Gray (R-Glendale).

Failing Performance Scholarships

With help from the school choice experts at the meeting, the task force addressed the advantages and disadvantages of programs that tie student scholarships to school or district performance.

“For those considering new programs that tie scholarships to school or district performance,” said Scott Jensen, national director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice, “it is important to consider some of the challenges such programs may face.”

For example, Jensen said, students who receive scholarships in elementary school may not be able to keep their scholarships if their junior high or high schools are not judged to be failing.

“You are also less likely to see the benefits of the market when the population of eligible students is fragmented across a particular [geographic] region,” Jensen warned. “Finding ways to make eligibility permanent and geographically coherent would serve to create stability in the market.”

Matt Warner ([email protected]) is the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Education Task Force director.

For more information …

A statement reflecting the guiding principles of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Education Task Force is available online at