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LOCALIZE IT: GOP pushes vouchers, 'school choice' in states

In more than a dozen states, Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation this year that would expand or create programs that give millions of taxpayer dollars to families that want to take their children out of public school.

Displeasure with how schools handled pandemic-era closures and mask rules and simmering concerns about curriculum — including how matters of gender and race are taught — have brought newfound energy to a decades-old push for so-called “school choice” policies that shift taxpayer funding allocated to individual students away from public schools to allow parents to instead pay for options such as private schools or homeschooling.

The proposals have kindled fury and resistance from teachers unions and their Democratic Party allies, who argue the dollars would be better spent bolstering public schools. They worry the programs are a stepping stone toward privatizing public education.

From Utah to Kansas, legions of students, parents and teachers have trekked to the marble floors of their state Capitols to demonstrate in favor or against voucher-style “education savings account” proposals.

Here are some tips and resources for localizing the story. Find AP’s latest coverage here.

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WHAT ARE ‘SCHOOL CHOICE’ POLICIES?

Funneling public funds toward private schools is a decades-old idea that first gained traction in the 1990s.

Today, so-called school choice policies include vouchers, scholarships, education savings accounts and tax credits. There is significant overlap between the policies, and the way they're labeled is frequently politicized.

Vouchers traditionally allow parents to take the funds that would otherwise be used to educate their children in public schools and use them toward tuition for accredited private or religious schools.

Education savings accounts and scholarship programs are similar but more expansive, allowing parents to spend the money on private school or expenses for home schooling. They’ve steadily grown in popularity over traditional vouchers due to legal challenges in states with constitutional limits on sending public money directly to religious organizations.

Tax credits allow families to deduct amounts from their overall tax burden to be used toward alternatives to public school.

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WHICH STATES ALREADY HAVE SCHOOL CHOICE POLICIES IN PLACE?

Arizona and West Virginia are the only states with voucher-style programs open to any student who wants to apply.

Many states have scholarship and voucher programs that are limited to specific student populations, such as students with disabilities in schools that may lack the resources to educate them.

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WHICH STATE LEGISLATURES ARE CONSIDERING OR LIKELY TO CONSIDER PROPOSALS THIS YEAR?

ARKANSAS

FLORIDA

ILLINOIS

IOWA

KANSAS

MISSOURI

NEBRASKA

NEVADA

OKLAHOMA

OREGON

SOUTH CAROLINA

TEXAS

UTAH

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HOW MUCH MONEY DO FAMILIES GET IN VOUCHERS OR EDUCATION SAVINGS ACCOUNTS?

Many states that allocate funds to schools with a per-pupil formula are proposing using it as a baseline amount to provide to families that want to pursue options outside public schools.

In Iowa, students opting for private school would receive $7,600, the state's per-pupil amount, while public school districts would get $1,200 as an offset. The plan would start with family income requirements and phase them out gradually.

In Utah, roughly 5,000 students would receive $8,000 scholarships, which is roughly double the state's “weighted pupil unit" funding that follows students to their schools. Unlike Iowa, which estimates its program would cost $345 million once fully implemented, Utah's would be capped at $42 million.

In South Carolina, an education savings account proposal would provide recipients $6,000.

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HOW WOULD STATES DECIDE WHO GETS THE FUNDS?

In Utah, any student could apply for the voucher-style scholarships, yet students from families making less than 200% of the federal poverty line would be prioritized. In South Carolina, students from families with incomes low enough to qualify for Medicaid would be eligible. In Iowa, all students who want to attend private school would be eligible for the state’s program, regardless of their families’ income level when it is fully implemented.