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Tipsheet

Republican Governors Are Spearheading Student-First Education Initiatives

AP Photo/Steve Helber, File

Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, Townhall reported how then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs tried to stop a school choice expansion program in her state, along with anti-school choice Democrats who support investing money into public schools rather than individual students. However, their efforts to overturn the popular program failed.

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Republicans, on the other hand, have long been ardent supporters of school choice programs for students and their families. In recent years, several GOP governors have led the way in rolling out these kinds of initiatives, along with many others, that put students and their families first.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin flipped Virginia red in the gubernatorial election in 2021 after a debate with former Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe. In the debate, McAuliffe said “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” His comments came after reports of blowout school board meetings in the state over curriculum being taught to children unbeknownst to their parents, and it’s speculated that these remarks cost McAuliffe the election. 

In his victory speech, Youngkin promised to introduce school choice in the public school system and rid schools of divisive ideologies like CRT.

After taking office, Youngkin began pushing for policies that put students first and protect parents’ rights in their child’s education. Last January, Youngkin announced School Choice week, and promised to sign the largest education budget in the state’s history.

“As your governor, I will continually stand up for students and parents and will sign the largest education budget in Virginia’s history. Our goal is that every student will graduate high school ready to go to college or start a great career. Choice and innovation within public education is vital to achieving that goal,” Youngkin said in the proclamation. “That’s why together we will not only raise standards and raise teacher pay, but we will invest $150 million to kick start 20 new charter schools in the Commonwealth. We must empower parents and students with choice and innovation in K-12 public education.”

As part of this initiative, Youngkin pushed “lab schools,” which are K-12 schools that partner with colleges across the state rather than school districts. According to the Wall Street Journal, lab schools are aimed at “[replicating] the success of charters, which face an unusual barrier in the state.” This initiative, WSJ added, “is in keeping with Mr. Youngkin’s campaign promise to grant more options and control to parents.”

“This is a monumental moment for us. This is why Virginians elected us this year – because they wanted new things in education,” Youngkin said of the lab schools. “To make sure our kids are college-ready, or career-ready, or both.”

Last week, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Yougkin’s administration would continue expanding school choice in Virginia's commonwealth by pushing legislation that allocates a portion of per-pupil state funding to a savings account. Parents can utilize this savings account to spend on approved education expenses, such as private school tuition, fees, or even textbooks for homeschooled children. Any student enrolled in a public school in Virginia for at least one semester would qualify for the program.

“All of us pay for our children’s education. The problem is that the rich make a decision. The rest of us, we only have what the government has chosen to do,” Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears said in remarks last week where she compared the school choice fight to Brown v. Board of Education. “We’re not doing that anymore.”

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In a tweet, Sears pointed out that the state funds public schools more than ever, but options are needed for children who “need a lifeline now.”

“We need to empower parents to make choices on their child's education regardless of zip code. Our children don't get do-overs,” she wrote. 

Del. Glenn Davis, a Republican from Virginia Beach, told the Times-Dispatch that children in historically black communities have been “trapped in schools that are failing them.” 

“All children should have access to the resources necessary to reach their full potential,” Davis said. 

Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA)

This week, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds began her second term as governor and kicked things off by proposing a package of reforms to the school system in her state that support school choice and put students first. 

Like nine other states with school choice programs, Reynolds’ first priority in her package of reforms is to “[make] sure that every child is provided with a quality education that fits their needs.” This includes giving families access to part of the per-pupil spending to use on approved education expenses, such as school choice. 

According to The Heritage Foundation, all Iowa families who opt their child out of the public school system could access around $7,600 through an ESA for tuition, tutoring, textbooks, special needs programs, and other approved expenses. 

For students currently attending private schools, Reynold’s universal school choice program would be phased in, beginning with the families with the lowest income levels.

“In three years, every family will have a choice in education, and no child will be limited by income or zip code,” Reynolds said this week. 

Additionally, Reynolds’ package includes creating work-based learning opportunities, teaching apprenticeship programs, and tutoring programs for students. 

According to Iowa News Now, Reynolds wants to give schools more flexibility when spending their funds. This would allow schools to increase teacher salaries, as teacher shortages have been an issue across the country. 

Reynolds' school choice agenda has been pushed for the past two years, including an ESA proposal each year. However, the Des Moines Register noted that this year’s proposal “marks a significant expansion” compared to the last two.

“Regardless of the reason, every parent should have a choice of where to send their child — and that choice shouldn’t be limited to families who can afford it,” Reynolds said. In the midterm elections, House Republicans in the state expanded their majority, and several Republican holdouts on the school choice proposals were replaced by leaders who support Reynolds’ agenda.

Reynolds’ student-first school choice agenda falls in line with her previous decisions when it comes to education during the coronavirus pandemic. In Reynolds’ Condition of the State address this month, she pointed out that she reopened schools during the pandemic to keep students in the classroom and prevent them from falling behind. 

"We stood the strongest when it mattered the most: When it was about our children," she said in her remarks. "I would do it all over again. And what I’ve come here tonight to tell you, is that I will do it again. More importantly, that we will do it again. If we are not providing a foundational education for our children, then we are failing."

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Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-AR)

Newly-elected Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is hitting the ground running regarding the education issue in Arkansas. On her second day in office, Sanders signed an order vowing to take on a “comprehensive approach at education.” And, this order will run parallel to the “education overhaul” agenda of the state’s General Assembly, KATV noted.

According to UA Little Rock Public Radio, Sanders “plans to bring a comprehensive list of changes to the field that will reflect a conservative philosophy.” In an interview with the outlet, Sanders pointed out that this would include bolstering students’ literacy, implementing school choice, and signing legislation surrounding the “‘culture wars’ on the education battlefield.” 

In 2022, only 30 percent of fourth-grade students in Arkansas read at or above proficiency for their grade levels. And the state reportedly ranks in the bottom ten nationally and is the lowest-scoring state in the South on reading proficiency. This issue is a major focus for Sanders; she told the outlet. 

“There are several things that I think we can do in this space. One is expanding access to Pre-K across the state. Making sure that more kids have a foundation at an earlier age helps put them on a better pathway long term,” she said in an interview. “I also think providing things and working with hard-hit schools in some of the more low-income areas [of Arkansas], providing reading coaches and things like that. I saw firsthand the difference that it makes to have somebody who is trained in the science of reading and understands what to look for, how to correct it and putting that kid on a pathway long-term.”

Sanders noted that 54 percent of the state’s budget goes to education, but that the money should be spent more efficiently. Her education agenda would boost pre-K literacy in an effort to have students read at or above their reading level after finishing third grade.

“We cannot continue to pour money into programs that aren’t delivering,” Sanders said.

Like Reynolds, Sanders supports schools using funds to raise teachers' salaries and supports giving parents access to school choice through an ESA. She said this gives the power and control back to the parents to decide what education is best for their child. 

“I’m not opposed to parents having the ability to spend their taxpayer dollars on the best education possible for their kids,” she said when asked if ESA dollars should be approved to be spent on private school tuition.

As for the divisive curriculum permeating America’s schools, The Washington Post noted that Sanders signed an order on her first day in office to review state education rules and policies to see if any “promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as CRT,” and to have it removed if so.

When UA Little Rock Radio asked about Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, Sanders said in the interview that she would sign a similar bill for Arkansas if it came to her desk. The Florida law prohibits schools from discussing transgender ideology and sex education with children in third grade and younger and was dubbed by Democrats as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, though the word “gay” was never used in the bill.

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“That piece of legislation, I would sign,” she explained. “I think, we have an opportunity as a government to do our part in protecting kids, we need to take advantage of that and do what we can to make sure that we are doing everything within our power to protect the young people in Arkansas.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis began his second term in office this month. And already, DeSantis is continuing to make progress regarding education.

Last week, Republican Florida state Rep. Kaylee Tuck wrote in Fox News how school choice in the Sunshine State over the past 20 years helped “elevate Florida from being one of the worst education states in America to No. 3 in K-12 achievement.” She noted that school choice does not undermine the public school system. Since DeSantis assumed office in 2019, he’s launched several initiatives to expand school choice and to protect parental involvement in education. 

In DeSantis’s first term, he signed multiple bills “significantly expanding” school choice in the state, according to Ed Choice. The bills came after DeSantis promised this in his inauguration speech in 2019.

“In a large and diverse state, our education system needs to empower parents to choose the best possible school for their children. One size does not fit all. No family should be denied the opportunity for their child to succeed due to insufficient income or to living in the wrong zip code. And this opportunity must extend to every Floridian regardless of race, color, or creed,” he said.

Soon after, DeSantis signed into law the largest school choice expansion in the state's history to give access to over 60,000 new students. The legislation expanded the Family Empowerment Scholarship program to help children in low-income households, children with unique abilities, children from military families, children in foster homes, and those who have been adopted to access the kind of education best for them. The legislation also increased scholarships from 95 percent to 100 percent for students in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Hope Scholarship Program, and Family Empowerment Scholarship program.

“This is public money, scholarship money, not going to any particular institution,” DeSantis said. “It’s going to the parents, and the parents are now in power. They would not have the wherewithal to do this but for these scholarships, and then the parents choose they would want to go.”

In 2022, DeSantis signed a bill allowing the scholarship program to expand by tens of thousands every year. And, it came after DeSantis signed into law the largest increase in public school teacher salaries in the state’s history. By doing this, the American Federation for Children noted, DeSantis showed that school choice programs and funding for public schools are not mutually exclusive.

Also, in 2022, DeSantis launched its first civics program to prepare high school and college graduates for public service and continue increasing investments in colleges and apprenticeship programs, according to The Center Square.

Aside from school choice, DeSantis has also worked to protect parental involvement in Florida’s schools and eliminate divisive ideology, including at the college level.

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In 2021, DeSantis unveiled the “Stop WOKE Act,” which prohibits public schools from hiring CRT consultants and outlaws the subject from being taught in schools. It also prohibits employers from mandating their employees to participate in “diversity training.”

“In Florida, we are taking a stand against the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory,” DeSantis said in 2021. “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other.”

In 2022, DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act into law, prohibiting schools from teaching young children about sexual orientation and gender ideology. In December, Florida was ranked No. 1 in the nation for Parent Involvement in Education

But, DeSantis’ education agenda does not only surround K-12 schools. This week, DeSantis made headlines for stacking the board of trustees at Sarasota’s New College of Florida with high-profile conservatives, including school choice advocate Christopher Rufo. This is a sharp contrast to most universities which are typically chock full with woke professors and administrations.

On top of that, DeSantis has been tackling divisive ideology at the college level, such as “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” programs and policies. The governor sent a letter to the state Department of Education this week requesting it to provide information relating to DEI programs and critical race theory programs at higher education institutions and the amount of state funding spent. According to Heritage, some big-name universities have around 30 programs of this kind and receive lots of funding from the state. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-OK)

Education that puts students first has been a top priority for Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt since he took office in 2019. This week, Stitt made headlines for continuing his agenda by replacing four of six state Board of Education members as part of his push to “rethink” education in his state, as Oklahoma has ranked near the bottom compared to 49 states for years.

“It’s time to rethink education in Oklahoma,” Stitt said during his inaugural address this month. “It’s time for the tough conversations to address what’s working and what is not.” 

“It’s time to teach kids how to think, not what to think. And that means, we must give students more access to learning methods that fit their unique needs. We need more schools — not less schools — like the fear mongers claimed when we called for change,” he said.

During Stitt’s gubernatorial reelection campaign, he pushed for proposals allowing taxpayer dollars to follow students to any school, including private schools, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs noted. Opponents to this claimed that it would result in the shutdown of rural schools. But, in Florida, this method has resulted in the opening of private schools in rural areas, not rural school closures. 

Stitt’s pick for superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters, was also elected, who ran on a platform promoting school choice. 

“The next four years my focus will ensure we are putting Oklahoma’s students first,” Walters said. “We will do what is best for the schools, students, parents, and teachers. I look forward to working with Governor Stitt, the Legislature and the State Board of Education to empower parents, increase teacher pay, protect girls’ sports, and keep the fundamentals of Oklahoma’s educational system at the forefront during my tenure.”

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During his first term, Stitt worked with the state legislature to “expand education freedom” for students by expanding a tax-credit scholarship program that gave tax breaks to residents who donated to organizations that funded private school scholarships. Stitt also signed off on legislation to extend open-transfer opportunities for students who live in public school districts. This way, students can transfer to a public school district of their choice given that the district has room available. 

“We believe every kid deserves the best education possible,” Stitt said of the legislation, “regardless of his or her economic status or ZIP code.” This, along with other efforts, was setting the foundation for the state to have “a top 10 future” compared to other states. 

“Parents, we are going to fight for you,” Stitt said. “We are going to challenge the status quo. And we are going to break out of the bottom and break into top 10.”

Last month, in a non-binding legal opinion, then-Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor declared that taxpayer-funded religious charter schools are legal following several Supreme Court decisions that favored religious freedom. O'Connor claimed that a state law that blocks religious institutions and sectarian private schools from public charter school programs is likely unconstitutional. And as a result, the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City plans to apply to open a virtual charter school and could get approval as early as next month. 

In a statement, Stitt said that O’Connor’s opinion “rightfully defends parents, education freedom, and religious liberty in Oklahoma. Ultimately, government takes a backseat to parents who get to determine the best learning environment for their child.”

Walters called the opinion “the right decision for Oklahomans.”

Nicole Stelle Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said she hopes other states follow Oklahoma’s lead. 

“The policy implications are huge because this is the first state that is going to allow religious charter schools,” she told Politico. “The legal implications are huge because this is the first state that says that they have to.”

Gov. Joe Lombardo (R-NV)

Newly-elected Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo pledged in his victory speech that he would make school choice initiatives and safety a priority for his administration. Lombardo flipped the governor’s seat from Democrat to Republican, which Townhall covered

This month, Lombardo’s office said that the administration is planning an “unprecedented investment” in the state’s K-12 education, according to the Associated Press. This included “school choice in all its forms” and expanding the state’s charter schools. 

“We believe in this sort of holistic school choice,” Ben Kieckhefer, Lombardo’s chief of staff, told AP. “That includes choice within the private system, choice within the traditional public system, choice within public charters. And there’s a lot of space, with that philosophy in mind, to give more options to families.”

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During his campaign, Lombardo promised to be the next “education governor” and told The Nevada Independent that there would be a “complete audit” of the state’s public school system starting “day one.” This audit would pinpoint if funds are allocated appropriately and determine if schools are underfunded entirely. And, a spokesperson for Lombardo’s office said that he would bring forward “increased accountability and transparency measures” surrounding schools during his State of the State address. 

During the campaign, Gov. Youngkin campaigned in Las Vegas to support Lombardo and highlighted how education would be a no. 1 priority. 

“We haven't had it as a priority in our state, and now we're starting to feel the suffering,” Lombardo said. 

The Nevada Independent released the governor’s education plan, which detailed that Las Vegas-area schools have been ranked the worst in the nation for quality. On the other hand, the state is near the bottom in education compared to other states. 

One initiative that Lombardo is pushing is to restore funding for is the Read by Grade 3 program in the state. The effort was launched by a former Republican governor that held students back who could not reach grade-level reading standards by third grade. Lombardo said that the program was defunded by former Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. This program ending and the impact of lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have set students back in school.

“You can’t reward mediocrity,” Lombardo said. “We have to have some negative sanctions associated with bad behavior. It’s not bad behavior when it comes to the kids, but it’s bad behavior as part of the policy.”

In addition, Lombardo wants to reassess the state’s per-pupil spending and data to determine if teachers are underpaid in the state. And, the student-teacher ratio in the state needs work, he said. 

“[School choice] is part of the answer,” Lombardo said. “I believe it’s a very necessary answer, but not the only answer.”

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