National News

School Choice Gaining Momentum Nationwide but Not in New York

A student is pictured in a file photo participating in a day devoted to science, technology, engineering and math at Catholic-run Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. A new law passed swiftly by the Iowa Legislature Jan. 24, 2023, gives more families the opportunity to choose between sending their children to private or public schools in Iowa, beginning with the next school year, 2023-24. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Jerry L. Mennenga)

WASHINGTON – School choice measures, long-supported by Catholic education leaders, are gaining quick momentum at the start of the new year, with governors in Iowa and Utah signing universal school choice bills into law in late January and legislatures in other states considering similar actions.

“I’ve never seen school choice legislation pass so fast, this early in the sessions,” said Shawn Peterson, president of Catholic Education Partners, a national nonprofit group supporting Catholic education.

He said these types of bills usually pass in the last weeks of a state legislative session. The fact that they’re happening in just the first weeks, he said, “tells me there’s a lot of wind behind us.”

The current momentum is building on a push that started in 2021, he said, when there were a lot of new state initiatives for school choice across the country. “We’re seeing the same thing again for a variety of reasons,” he told The Tablet, pointing out some of this stems from parents experiencing “post-COVID frustration” and becoming tired of what they see as “woke ideology in public schools.”

Peterson, a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Education, said he also thinks — from his own observations of what people are saying on social media — that younger millennial parents are behind the current wave of support for school choice because they are “used to choices with everything else in their life,” from coffee shops to customized purchases.

The school choice measures that just passed in Utah and Iowa are both universal education savings account bills where anyone can qualify and the state matches per-pupil funding. 

Utah’s measure makes $8,000 available to every student with no income cap on families who can apply but gives lower-income families preference. Iowa’s similar bill provides more than $7,500 for any student to use toward tuition and other education expenses.

 Peterson said the tax credits and education saving accounts are the “future of school choice” over voucher scholarships because they are broader, and families can customize them using the funds not only for tuition but for transportation, tutoring, and technology.

These initiatives allow parents who choose not to send their children to public schools to access and use government-authorized savings accounts for a variety of education expenses.

Sister Dale McDonald, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and vice president of public policy with the National Catholic Educational Association, said the NCEA “applauds state leaders for recognizing parents’ rights to determine the best fit for their children,” and hopes to see similar efforts “replicated across the country.”

She said more than 30 states have some kind of program in place for school choice and several are currently looking to expand what they already have.

Lawmakers in at least nine other states — Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — have introduced different school choice bills.

New York is not one of these states.

In an email to The Tablet, James Cultrara, director for education with the New York State Catholic Conference, said: “Lawmakers in 33 states have put school children and their families first by enacting programs that help those families with tuition and other educational needs.”

Cultrara added that New York’s families deserve similar benefits and said the Catholic Conference will continue to urge Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers “to support tuition-paying families in the same way they support families choosing charter and traditional public schools.”

“Sadly, to date, the governor and legislative leaders have not demonstrated the political will to implement true choice in New York,” he said.