School Choice Wins Across the Nation
The school choice movement is accelerating across the nation as more state legislatures pass laws that empower parents to use tax dollars to send their child to the best school for them.
Support for school choice is also skyrocketing among voters across demographics. Among likely voters, a survey by the Invest in Education Coalition found that 81 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of Independents, and 49 percent of Democrats favor school choice when defined as “the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”
According to the poll, 75 percent of voters who chose education reform as a top priority agree that “parents should be in charge of decisions regarding their child’s education. It is not fair that only wealthy parents truly get to decide where their child goes to school.” Notably, 81 percent of both African American and Hispanic respondents agreed with the statement, along with 71 percent of likely voters in small towns and 62 percent of likely suburban voters.
While this is not a comprehensive list, the following are noteworthy examples of school choice victories across the nation:
Arizona instituted an ESA program in 2011 called the Empowerment Scholarship Account, which parents can use for homeschool expenses, private school tuition, and even therapy for special needs students. The original 2011 program was designed for “qualified students,” such as students with disabilities or whose public school district was assigned a D or F grade, or who had not previously attended a public school. In 2022 under Republican Gov. Ducey, the program made headlines when it was expanded so that all K-12 students in the state were eligible. In 2023, however, the future of the program is uncertain as Gov. Katie Hobbs has expressed her intention to scale back the program with her Fiscal Year 2024 budget, specifically asking the legislature for a “Repeal of ESA Universal Expansion.”
Arkansas’ legislature quickly passed SB 294, the LEARNS Act. Introduced February 20, 2023, it was passed by the Senate and House within days. On March 7, 2023, it was sent to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who signed it. The LEARNS Act creates the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program, for which all students will be eligible by 2025. It also requires a minimum base salary of $50,000 for classroom teachers, and triples available tax credits for contributions toward the state’s Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Program Act.
Florida “has four private school choice programs, an education savings account (ESA), one voucher and two tax-credit scholarships,” according to EdChoice. Gov. Ron DeSantis has a strong record on school choice, approving a 2019 bill that created the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The next year, he signed an expansion bill (HB 7067) that annually increases the number of students eligible for the scholarship and another comprehensive bill in 2021 (HB 7045) that further expanded school choice. In January 2023, a bill (HB 1) was filed in the Florida House of Representatives which would expand the Family Empowerment Scholarship to all students eligible to enroll in a K-12 public school, giving priority to low-income families; HB 1 has passed through several committees as of March 6, 2023 and continues through the committee process. Similarly, in February 2023, a bill (SB 202) was introduced in the Florida Senate to expand access to the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program and Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. It passed the Education Pre-K – 12 Committee with a 9-3 vote, and is on the Appropriations Committee on Education agenda for March 8, 2023.
The Georgia legislature is currently considering two education choice bills: HB 54 and SB 233. HB 54 raises the state’s limit on tax credits available for contributions to student scholarship organizations. SB 233, the “Georgia Promise Scholarship Act,” which passed the state Senate, would establish scholarship accounts to be funded by the state in the amount of $6,000 per school year for each participating student. The accounts would be applicable to tuition and fees, curriculum expenses, and even various therapies such as speech and behavioral therapy.
Iowa passed the Students First Act on January 23, 2023 (during National School Choice Week) that Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the same day. The bill creates Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for parents to use toward tuition and fees should they choose a non-public school option for their child(ren). The value of the Savings Account each year is equal to “the regular program state cost per pupil for the same school budget year,” and an application must be submitted for each school year.
Utah’s state legislature passed the “Utah Fits All Scholarships Program” in January 2023, and Gov. Spencer Cox signed it into law shortly thereafter. The new law will enable families to use education funding for their children for alternatives to public school. Predictably, the Utah Education Association — Utah’s largest teachers’ union — announced it is “exploring every option available to overturn this damaging legislation.”
In Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 election victory was largely due to his support for parents’ rights and school accountability. Younkin vowed to fight for school choice in his election night victory speech: ”We are going to introduce choice within our public school system… We’re going to start with charter schools…and close the gap on giving parents an opportunity to select where their kids go to school…We’re going to press forward with a curriculum that includes listening to parents’ input…We are fighting for parents and students and teachers in our schools.” In January 2023, HB 1508 was filed in the Virginia House of Representatives. The bill would create an Education Success Account program that parents can use to send their students to private schools.
West Virginia enacted its first school choice program in 2021: The Hope Scholarship Program. The program establishes an ESA that “allows eligible parents to receive the average per-pupil state funding already set aside for their children’s education onto an electronic, parent-controlled fund for educational expenses,” according to EdChoice, which reports that 93% of West Virginia students are eligible. In January 2023, HB 2997 was introduced in the West Virginia legislature to make all children eligible for the Hope Scholarship Program, rather than only students enrolled in public school.
Sheridan Swanson is a Research Associate at California Policy Center.