A growing number of states are not waiting for the federal government's lead in overhauling education. This year alone, 36 states have either passed or are considering comprehensive legislation on school vouchers, tax credits and other reform measures.
"It's been a huge year for school choice ... and I think it's going to get a lot more intense," said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foundation for Educational Choice.
Indiana on Wednesday passed the largest voucher bill in the nation's history. Within three years, 60 percent of the state's students will be eligible for vouchers to attend charter or other alternative schools. The bill is not geared solely toward low-income households or students in failing schools, as is the case with similar efforts in other states. Instead, a family of four earning up to $61,000 a year will be eligible. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is expected to sign the bill into law.
Oklahoma has passed a broad school-choice program that gives tax breaks to businesses and individuals that donate to private-school scholarships. Students now enrolled in public schools can get scholarships worth up to 80 percent of the average per-child cost statewide.
Earlier this month, Arizona passed an education-savings program that allows the parents of disabled children to withdraw them from public school and put the money that would've been spent at those schools into tax-free bank accounts. It can then be used for private tutoring, virtual education, college tuition or other expenses.
Voucher, scholarship or charter-school proposals are also on the table in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and dozens of other states.
States are also experimenting with what should or should not be taught. The Texas State Board of Education is mulling educational materials that critics argue downplay evolution and promote the religious theory of creation.
Lawmakers in some states, such as Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee, have proposed legislation to ban the teaching of Islamic Shariah law.
Elsewhere, newly elected Republican governors have taken on teachers unions and proposed merit-pay systems, designed to bypass the traditional tenure model that often allows ineffective teachers to stay on the payroll. Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill last month to link teacher pay to performance, not the length of service.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has drawn national attention - and constant verbal abuse from pro-union Democrats - for his plan to eliminate collective-bargaining rights for teachers. The legislation cleared the state House and Senate but remains tied up in court.
Across the country, these plans are designed to improve school performance and give students more options. Some states, like Arkansas, have bodies specifically geared to alternative education.
"We research it. We do it ... and then traditional education takes it on," said Lori Lamb, president of the National Alternative Education Association and director of Arkansas' alternative education program.
In the state's Blytheville School District, a charter school runs a certified nursing assistant program for high school students. Rather than spend two years at a college before being certified, students can spend two hours each day in a CNA class. If they pass the year-end exam, they're eligible to get a job in their field.
"We have the ability to make that schedule," because the charter school isn't tied down by the same rigid course requirements often found elsewhere, said Paul Stubblefield, the school's assistant principal. While he stressed that students still take "normal" classes in math, social studies and other subjects, they're also able to devote extra time to nursing, culinary arts or other specialized fields.
At the Davidson County School District's Extended Day School in North Carolina, students primarily take classes online. "Our teachers will assign content ... based on how the students do. The teachers will pull those students and reinforce the content in a face-to-face format," said Principal James Fitzgerald.
If the per-child cost at a charter or other alternative school is lower than the price at a traditional school, the leftover money can enable cash-strapped states to reduce costs. But cost shouldn't be the only factor, warns Bob Tate, a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association.
"It's impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons" between traditional and charter schools, he said. "If a school is not feeding kids ... it's less expensive, but many parents would consider that a significant drawback."
Mr. Tate said some charter schools, for example, may not provide English as a Second Language courses, or may not offer effective programs for students with disabilities. Such programs, he said, drive up budgets at public schools. Parents pulling their children out of traditional schools, in some cases, drains money for more-expensive but necessary programs, according to Mr. Tate.
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