The Corner

Education

States Are Working to Expand School Choice during the Pandemic

Governor Henry McMaster (R., S.C.) looks on at a rally in Columbia, S.C., June 25, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

As I wrote on the homepage earlier this week, Republican senators Tim Scott (S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) are proposing to reallocate 10 percent of the CARES Act’s education funding so that states can award one-time grants to scholarship organizations, offsetting costs for families who need help funding private-school tuition or homeschooling. The same legislation would create a permanent federal tax-credit scholarship program, capped at $5 billion a year, giving federal taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit for any money they donate to scholarship organizations.

It’s worth noting that several states are also working to expand and fund school choice during the COVID-19 outbreak, recognizing that families and schools are facing significant economic setbacks as a result of the recession, as well as the uncertainty of whether, when, and how those school will reopen.

In South Carolina, for instance, Republican governor Henry McMaster has just announced a grant program — funded by the $48 million that the state received in CARES Act relief money — called Safe Access to Flexible Education (SAFE), which will offer 5,000 one-time grants of up to $6,500 for low-income students who attend private or independent schools. The first 2,500 of the grants will be first-come first-served, and the rest will be given out through a lottery system.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, Republican governor Kevin Stitt has outlined a plan to use CARES Act block-grant funding to expand and create school-choice programs. First, he allocated $8 million to the state education department and another $1 million to a large technical school in the state so it could offer some students free tuition. The rest of the funding will be divvied up between $10 million for a fund for low-income students attending private schools; $8 million to a program that offers stipends to low-income students for “curriculum content, technology or tutoring services”; and $12 million to a state initiative that will enable more students to access digital-education content.

In Pennsylvania, legislators are mulling an even more expansive school-choice proposal that would create education scholarship accounts, using CARES Act funding to offer low-income families $1,000 per child, on a first-come first-served basis, to be spent on approved expenses such as tuition costs, tutoring, and online class. After November 16, any school-age child in the state would be permitted to apply, regardless of family income level.

This last proposal bears a resemblance to the education savings account programs in five states: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. These programs provide qualifying students with government-funded savings accounts that can be used to cover the costs of private-school tuition, online learning, tutoring, community college, and higher education.

States would be wise to consider creating similar school-choice programs, not only to help address the negative effects of the pandemic on families and schools but also to enable students to continue choosing the education that is best for them even when the pandemic is over.

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