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News Update

School choice bill fails in Senate committee, is dead for the year

Education savings accounts, a school choice variation of a voucher that is gaining traction in Republican-controlled states, failed to get a foothold this week in the California Legislature.

Democrats on the Senate Education Committee defeated Senate Bill 292 by a 5-2 vote on Wednesday, killing it and a companion bill, Senate Constitutional Resolution 5, for the year. Both measures were authored by Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, on behalf of its sponsor, the conservative-leaning California Policy Center.

That means backers will need to raise $8 million to $10 million to place their proposal on a statewide ballot, instead of having the Legislature place it before voters, as early as next year. And that would be a heavy lift, said Lance Christensen, who promoted education savings accounts, or ESAs, in his unsuccessful campaign last year for state superintendent of public instruction. Christensen is vice president of education policy and government affairs for the policy center.

Unlike vouchers, in which the state pays tuition directly to a private school, with ESAs, the state sets up individual education savings accounts for parents, giving them more flexibility. As proposed in SB 292, the state would set up a trust fund that would provide families an amount equal to average per student funding for public schools to send a child to the private school of their choice. That would include religious schools, which currently are barred from receiving public funding in California. That would be around $17,000 this year. Parents could put it toward tuition, transportation or other expenses; what’s left over in their ESA account each year could be put toward college tuition or other post-high school certificates and career training.

“Letting parents decide which school offers the best options and learning experiences for their student better utilizes education funds,” Christensen wrote in a letter of endorsement. But, he added, “Financial barriers have many parents feeling that they have no options but to send their children to neighborhood schools. Where there is choice, it is ZIP codes and lotteries that determine the educational options available for most low- and middle-income students.”

West Virginia, Arizona, Utah, Iowa, Arkansas and Florida have passed ESAs within the past two years, and the Texas Legislature considering adopting it. Two competing organizations in California took initial steps to put ESAs on the ballot last year but stopped after raising only several hundred thousand dollars.

Christensen said he is optimistic the ESA movement will grow in California, but there are no plans for a ballot issue in 2023. “Show me the money, with seven-figures in the bank, before we are going to move it,” he said.

Opponents said ESAs would siphon funding needed for public education, including providing tuition for families of the 500,000 students already enrolled in private schools.