This week is National School Choice Week, and some Alabama officials are highlighting the need to expand educational options for all students.
In Alabama, the current choices are traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet public schools, online learning, private schools and homeschooling. The Alabama Accountability Act (AAA) also funds students in failing school systems to attend private or public schools that are doing well.
But having the choice of any school or manner of education is what many are asking for when they say "school choice."
The state of Arizona has a universal voucher program, allowing all school-aged children to attend the school of their choice, no matter where they live. Families may also receive over $6,500 each year to attend private school or homeschool, or any educational program that is not within the public school system. The model is the only one of its kind in the nation.
Critics say school choice can harm the public school system and take money away from schools in need of resources. Supporters, like freshman State Rep. Susan DuBose (R-Hoover), say it can help improve public schools by adding competition to the mix.
"We want these students to be successful and be in the best environment possible," said DuBose. "You would hope that the competition would do that. In a free market society, we see competition improving schools, and that is one of the hopes that we have with school choice. This would give all our students the opportunity to do their best and be the best they can be."
Discussions of school choice have garnered much attention in Montgomery over the years, and this could be the year, DuBose believes, that change is made.
"I like to call it educational freedom," said DuBose. "I think Alabama is going to be in a very good position to pass a school choice bill this session."
In her first meeting with House Education Policy Committee Chairman State Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur), DuBose, who serves in that committee, said she would bring up the matter immediately.
"I have a meeting coming up with the committee chairman, Terri Collins, and that is going to be my very first question is, 'where are we on school choice?'" DuBose added.
Collins has previously said a school choice bill will be up to several freshmen legislators who must step up to the plate.
"We have so many new people, and a lot of them ran on school choice, so we're just going to have to get them in Montgomery to see what they're actually willing to do," Collins told 1819 News in December. "But we have some [school choice]. There was a school choice bill last session … that would give all students a choice in their education. As we look at a funding formula and go to maybe more of a per-pupil instead of per-teacher ratio, that might help us be able to do that as well if we actually have an appetite in the legislature to pass that."
If she doesn't sponsor a bill on school choice for her first year, DuBose said she would co-sponsor one.
In Arizona, a non-profit formed to strengthen public schools, Save Our Schools (SOS) Arizona, failed to stop the voucher program when it attempted to petition the state to repeal school choice. The non-profit — which also supports more funding to schools in low-income areas, changes in the teaching of history and civics, and a focus on the rights of LGBTQ students — could not find enough people to sign the petition to end the voucher program. However, SOS continues to call for lawmakers to cut the budget for the state program.
Meanwhile, some Alabama leaders have said that a school choice and a universal voucher program are a top priority in the 2023 legislative session. Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth has voiced his support of school choice, and Gov. Kay Ivey said Monday she hopes there can be a discussion on the matter.
"In my inaugural address, I said we need to have meaningful discussions about school choice in Alabama and that we should begin by making needed reforms to our charter school option," Ivey stated. "Improving school choice is a priority of mine, and we are proud to celebrate School Choice Week."
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