School Choice: Legislative Halftime Report
In January, I penned an op-ed for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch outlining what I thought should be the education policy priorities for the new legislative session. I made three recommendations:
1. Expand charter schools beyond the boundaries of Saint Louis and Kansas City
2. Create a course access program to allow more students (particularly in rural areas) to access high-quality coursework
3. Create an education savings account (ESA) program to allow families to customize the education that best fits the needs of their child.
As the legislature takes its annual spring break, we can take a step back and ask: How close are we to seeing these ideas become reality?
In a highly dramatic scene, charter school expansion (as codified in HB 634) passed the house and is now under discussion in the Senate. The margin of victory was razor-thin, and the Speaker of the House himself came down from the dais to personally address the body on the bill’s importance. Several important compromises were made in the bill, including giving school districts the right of first refusal when it came to authorizing a new charter school and shortening the duration of a school’s charter if the school is struggling academically. We will see if those concessions are enough to get it over the bar in the Senate.
With much less controversy, course access passed the house (HB 138) and has a companion bill in the Senate (SB 327) that has passed out of committee. I was at both House and Senate hearings, and both bills garnered wide, bipartisan support. In fact, in neither hearing did anyone get up to speak against them. In education policy, that is a rarity. Both await consideration by the Senate as whole.
Two ESA bills have passed out of committee in the Senate (SB 32 and SB 313) and both await consideration by the Senate as a whole. SB 32 is a smaller bill, with $25 million in tax credits, but it has broader student eligibility. SB 313 is a larger bill, with $50 million in tax credits, but is restricted to students with special needs, students in foster care, and the children of military families.
If you are sensing a pattern here, you’re right. The Senate has a large number of bills under consideration. It is a deliberative body that tends to take its time dissecting and discussing legislation. Therefore, the primary concern of folks looking to advance education reform is the calendar.
The Senate has a lot to get done before May. Here’s hoping that education remains a priority.