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School Choice Movement Picks Up Steam as Distance Learning Fails Families

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With her children struggling in virtual classes last spring, Kelli Rivera became so frustrated with how her suburban Atlanta district was handling the coronavirus pandemic that she withdrew them to homeschool them.

They’re back in public school and mostly attending class in person. For now.

Rivera is thinking of enrolling her younger son in private school next year, and she hopes the state of Georgia will help her pay for it with an expansion of school choice programs.

“We’ve been just a public school family forever, without any intention or desire to leave,” Rivera said. “But when the pandemic hit and we moved into virtual schooling, it really wasn’t working for us.”

School choice advocates and lawmakers in many states are bolstering efforts to pass or expand laws allowing families to use public money to pay for private school or to help teach their own children at home.

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Some sort of school choice program gets taxpayer money in 29 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to EdChoice, a group that supports school choice.

Backers say they are optimistic about making new gains this year as surveys nationwide have indicated private schools have been more likely to offer in-person instruction.

“If you talk to any parent of a school-aged child, what you’ll find, literally across the board, is they’re just mad, frustrated, that traditional public school districts failed to deliver education to their children,” said American Federation for Children president John Schilling, who lobbies for school choice programs.

“What the pandemic has laid bare is just how inflexible the K-12 system is.”

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Opponents argue vouchers will sap funding for traditional public schools, which could be particularly damaging for districts that serve poor families. Voucher programs generally benefit students in low-income districts where schools are struggling.

“They drain money from public schools and they allow private schools to discriminate in all kinds of ways,” according to Jessica Levin of the Education Law Center, which is part of the anti-voucher group Public Funds for Public Schools.

While it remains early in many states’ legislative sessions, there are fresh proposals for vouchers in states that already subsidize private and homeschooling, such as Indiana, Arizona and Florida, and in states that do not, such as Missouri.

The proposals appear more likely to pass in Republican-controlled states, where schools have been more likely to open for in-person instruction.

In Georgia, Republican state Rep. Wes Cantrell has introduced a bill that would create educational savings accounts, which would let parents direct money to private school tuition or homeschooling costs. The proposal would give the money to various groups, including students in districts not offering full in-person instruction.

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“The major concern I’ve had over the last year has been from parents who don’t have a public school offering in-person classes,” Cantrell said. “If the public schools are not meeting their needs, they should have another choice.”

Rivera said grades for both her sons, a sixth grader and sophomore, have been terrible during virtual learning.

Last spring, she homeschooled them, spending money on computers and curriculum. She said this year has been bumpy as well even as the 107,000-student Cobb County district has been offering in-person classes four days a week.

She said she’s considering enrolling her younger son next fall in a private school that provides two days a week of in-person instruction, with parents homeschooling the other days. Tuition is a concern.

“As it stands, I’m not sure we could swing it,” Rivera said.

In Missouri, where school choice measures have repeatedly failed, Republican Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden said his top priority is a bill giving tax breaks for donations to organizations providing scholarships to private schools or other public schools outside a student’s home district.

“I’ve got a lot of left and center-left friends who are more frustrated with the public school system than they ever have been in their lives,” said Rowden, who sends his child to a private Christian school.

“They have now recognized they have so little control over the say of their kid’s education that something needs to be done about it.”

In Indiana, which already has one of the nation’s largest voucher programs, Republicans are trying to increase the number of students getting assistance by up to 40 percent next year by opening eligibility to wealthier families.

Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed a bill that would make open enrollment available in all school districts, expand charter school options and create an education savings account allowing parents to move a child to another public or private school.


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