2015’s legislative session has been a busy time for school choice policies like public charter schools and tax credit scholarships - just not in Nebraska. This year, Alabama, Montana and Tennessee joined the majority of states by advancing school choice legislation that puts the power in the hands of parents and guardians to choose the right school setting for their kids.
On March 19, 2015, Alabama became the 43rd state to allow public charter schools. Alabama also has a tax credit scholarship program and allows vouchers to help low-income families afford private school options.
Meanwhile, Nebraska's legislative committees have voted down a public charter school pilot program for Omaha and ignored tax credit scholarships that would benefit low-income families statewide while saving taxpayer dollars.
Under Alabama's new law, local boards will create strategic goals specifically for the benefit of how public charter schools can best serve students most vulnerable to the achievement gap. Further, the law specifies that existing public schools may be converted into public charter schools through school board contracts with tax-exempt organizations.
According to the Alabama State Superintendent of Education, public charter schools will provide “another tool to create innovative options to serve the needs of their students.” All public charters schools in the state will be subject to the same annual standardized testing requirements as required for all traditional public schools.
Until recently, Montana was one of seven remaining states, including Nebraska, without a statewide school choice law. On March 30, 2015, the Montana Senate passed a bill to create a tax credit scholarship program for private and public education. This legislation would provide individual taxpayers with a $150 nonrefundable tax credit for charitable donations made toward “innovative educational programs.”  The Montana House of Representatives recently passed a similar bill to grant a $1000 nonrefundable individual tax credit for elementary and secondary school tuition. Similar tax credit scholarship programs exist in fifteen other states, including Iowa and Kansas.
Nevada, a state which already permits public charter schools, made the most dramatic additions to its school choice laws this year. As part of a wide-ranging package of education reforms, including increased support for public charter schools, Nevada has introduced a tax credit scholarship program to encourage donations to scholarships for private schooling for low and middle income families, as well as a Universal Education Savings Account program (ESA).
The ESA would permit families with children who have been enrolled in the public schools for over 100 days to opt instead to receive 90 percent of the state's per-pupil funding in an individual savings account that can be used to fund private school tuition, homeschooling, tutoring, educational therapies or savings for college tuition. Students with special needs would receive 100 percent of the state funding.
Outside Nebraska, school choice has often proven to be a bipartisan effort. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has been a vocal supporter of public charter schools and this year endorsed education tax credits to assist families with private school choice.
Nebraska’s policymakers should be looking for more ways to address the state’s achievement gap, and school choice is an important tool in that toolkit. Nearly 40 percent of Nebraska's minority students are not grade proficient in reading, and 50 percent are not grade proficient in math. With 12 out of 13 empirical studies now demonstrating that school choice has a positive effect on student achievement; it’s time for a different approach.
More funding alone has not addressed inequities in education. Nebraska spends well above the national median for local education and spending. Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Nebraska is the 10th highest state for per capita education expenditures, with the percentage of total education spending at 6.1% higher than the national median.
Parents, more than anyone, know how to squeeze the most value out of a dollar. When the power is placed in their hands to choose education options and resources for their children, parents choose with their child’s individual learning needs in mind. School choice policies like public charter schools, tax credit scholarships, and education savings accounts empower parents to provide their children with high-quality education options while offering an excellent value to taxpayers and Nebraska’s workforce.
 “Charter schools coming to Alabama; here’s more about what that means.” Alabama Media Group. Mar. 22, 2015, Accessed Mar. 31, 2015. http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2015/03/charter_schools_coming_to_alab.html
 “Charter School Laws Across the States: 2015 Rankings and Scorecard.” Center for Education Reform. March 2015. [URL: https://www.edreform.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CharterLaws2015.pdf]
 Dennison, Mike. “Montana Senate endorses ‘school choice’ bill on close vote.” The Montana Standard. Mar. 31, 2015, Accessed Mar. 31, 2015. http://mtstandard.com/news/local/montana-senate-endorses-school-choice-bill-on-close-vote/article_f816ce29-d89f-5152-ac55-3196e9d101d1.html
 “Montana House endorses tax credit for private school tuition.” The Missoulian. Mar. 17, 2015, Accessed Mar. 31, 2015. http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/montana-legislature/montana-house-endorses-tax-credit-for-private-school-tuition/article_f670551e-207b-5e35-92f2-7955b01e1640.html
 “Scholarship Tax Credits: Overview.” National Conference of State Legislatures. April 2015, Accessed Mar. 31, 2015. http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/school-choice-scholarship-tax-credits.aspx
 Cuomo, Andrew. “My agenda for NY opportunity: Boosting access to good schools.” New York Post. Mar. 22, 2015, Accessed Mar. 31, 2015. http://nypost.com/2015/03/22/my-agenda-for-ny-opportunity-boosting-access-to-good-schools/
 “Efforts in Nebraska to Address the Achivement Gap.” EducationQuest Foundation. June 2014, Accessed Mar. 31, 2015. [URL: http://apps.educationquest.org/pdfs/Articles/Efforts_to_Address_Achievement_Gap.pdf]
 Forster, Greg. “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice.” The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. April 2013, Accessed Apr. 4, 2015. [URL: http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/A-Win-Win-Solution--The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Choice.aspx]
 “Rankings & Estimates: Rankings of the States 2014 and Estimates of School Statistics 2015.” National Education Association. March 2015, Accessed Apr. 4, 2015. [URL: http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/NEA_Rankings_And_Estimates-2015-03-11a.pdf]