Public Schools

State legislatures are coming back in session. Here’s what to watch out for.

  Nik Nartowicz

We’re officially two weeks into the new year, which means that state legislatures are coming back into session. By the end of next week, 37 states will have officially started their 2024 legislative session. Americans United is already tracking more than 800 bills, many of which are “carry-over” bills that were introduced last year in states that have two-year sessions, and hundreds more will be introduced as the sessions continue.

During presidential election years, people often focus on what is happening in the White House and Congress. But it is equally important to pay attention to state legislatures because that is where the majority of bills are introduced and passed each year.

Here is an overview of what we expect to see in the states this year:

Private school vouchers

Last year, 17 states passed laws to expand or create new private school voucher programs, and we expect to see more voucher bills this year. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey have both said they want to expand private school vouchers in their states. And we expect to see legislators in Missouri and Georgia try to pass voucher bills as well.

Vouchers divert desperately needed taxpayer dollars away from public schools to fund private, mostly religious schools. They also are often more expensive than initial estimates, which can lead to larger cuts to public education funding. In Arizona, for example, vouchers are costing more than 1300% more than first predicted, which is expected to lead to a $320 million budget shortfall for things like public schools, fire, police, and more.

Vouchers also primarily fund wealthy students who already attend private schools. In Arkansas, just 5% of students in the state’s new voucher program previously attend public schools. And, of course, vouchers are ripe for fraud and abuse: In North Carolina, for example, independent investigators found that the state sent voucher funding to schools that had closed or sent funding for students who didn’t exist. Instead of pushing vouchers, state legislatures should instead work to fund public schools that welcome all children. As leaders in the fight against vouchers, including co-chairing the National Coalition for Public Education, AU will be working hard to defeat these bills.

Religion in public schools

Last year, state legislators tried to use the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton as an excuse to pass a variety of bills that unconstitutionally promote religion in public schools. Unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue in 2024. Last week, we covered a bill recently introduced in Oklahoma that would require public schools to post the Ten Commandments. Florida has introduced a bill to allow chaplains to serve in public schools, and Nebraska introduced a bill to allow teachers to pray with students. Every public school student should feel welcomed and included at school, regardless of their religion or beliefs, but these bills undermine that goal. AU will fight to make sure our public schools remain inclusive and don’t promote religion or compel students to take part in religious activities.

Bills that use religion to harm others

Legislators have also introduced bills that would allow religion to be misused to discriminate against people where they work, where they shop or when they try to get health care they need. This includes bills like HF 229 in Iowa, a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” which could be used to trump nondiscrimination laws and justify discrimination, and SB 887 in Oklahoma, which would allow health care providers and facilities to cite religion as a reason to refuse to provide nearly any medical service – or even refuse to refer patients so they can get the health care they need somewhere else. Bills like these harm women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and the nonreligious the most.

It’s impossible to predict what will happen in state legislatures. But AU will continue to monitor legislation, engage with partners across the country and actively oppose bills that would undermine religious freedom for all. If you want to help, you can use this action alert to send a message to your state legislators urging them to uphold the separation of church and state and oppose the types of bills described above.

You can also become an AU member and follow us on Twitter/X, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to stay informed about all the work we do to fight for religious freedom.

For Nex and all 2SLGBTQ+ students in Oklahoma

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