Has the Tide Turned on School Choice?
In the past year, many states—and not just the red ones—have adopted or expanded school choice programs, which is good news for students and parents
One of the hardest parts of working in education policy is talking to parents who have heard about school choice but live in an area without it. Oftentimes they are desperate to get their child into another learning environment. Maybe their child isn’t receiving a quality education at his or her current school, maybe the child is getting bullied, maybe the school is teaching things that go against the parents’ values. Whatever the issue, the parents feel trapped—and that feeling gets worse knowing a solution exists, but they don’t have access to it.
These aren’t just hypotheticals. I talk to parents all the time who are trying to find a different educational option for their children. Recently a mom from my home state of Pennsylvania contacted me to ask about school choice options because her daughter is being bullied to the point that she and her spouse fear for the girl’s physical safety. While Pennsylvania has two tax credit scholarship programs, they’re income-limited and oversubscribed, so they aren’t a solution for her family. Fortunately, school choice is gaining traction in many states, but the movement still has a long way to go.
2023: The Year of Universal School Choice
The good news is that educational freedom has spread rapidly in recent years as states have adopted and expanded school choice programs. Thirteen states now have education savings accounts (ESAs) that allow a portion of state education dollars to follow students to a wide variety of educational options. In 22 states there are tax credit scholarship programs, which provide businesses and individuals a tax credit in exchange for donations to scholarship-granting organizations. Ten states offer an individual tax credit or deduction for families who have paid for private school tuition. And scholarship vouchers that can be used for tuition are operating in 14 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico.
Most of these programs started off as targeted programs that were geared toward specific populations, such as students with special needs, families with lower incomes, students assigned to low-performing schools and military families. In 2020, there wasn’t a single universal program. West Virginia jumped to the front of the pack in 2021 with the Hope Scholarship, an ESA that was available to students wanting to transfer out of a public school and to all incoming kindergarteners. The next year, Arizona expanded its existing ESA to become the first fully universal school choice program.
Then came 2023—or what has been called the year of universal choice. Arkansas, Iowa and Utah started brand-new ESAs that were universal right out of the gate. Florida made its ESA universal and transformed a targeted tax credit scholarship that could only be used for tuition into a universal tax credit ESA that can be used for a variety of education-related expenses. Oklahoma created the first-in-the-nation universal refundable tax credit. And Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina now have universal or nearly universal vouchers.
In short, families in 32 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have access to at least one school choice program, with universal or nearly universal access in various stages of implementation in 10 of those states. According to EdChoice, around 20 million K-12 students in the U.S.—36% of the school-age population—are now eligible for school choice programs.
School Choice Isn’t Just for Red States
For the most part, the expansion of educational freedom has been a red state phenomenon, limited to states with Republican-majority legislatures and governors. However, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are currently 23 Republican-controlled state governments. Only nine of these have adopted one of these expansive school choice programs, which means there is plenty of room for growth.
Unfortunately, politics gets in the way. For example, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called four special legislative sessions last fall trying to pass ESAs. This initiative seemed like it would be a slam dunk considering Republicans control the state government, and 88% of 2022 Republican primary voters supported the statement, “Texas parents and guardians should have the right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.” But while the Texas Senate passed an ESA bill, it was stymied by Democrats and rural Republicans in the House, who faced intense political pressure from teachers’ unions and public school bureaucrats.
It appears unlikely that Gov. Abbott will call a fifth special session. But he has taken a page from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ playbook. In 2022, she backed challengers to several Republican lawmakers who opposed her school choice proposal. All but one of the candidates she backed succeeded, giving her enough votes to pass a universal ESA in 2023. Recently, Gov. Abbott has engaged in a similar strategy, backing primary challengers against House Republicans who obstructed his ESA proposal. Whether or not Abbott succeeds, fear of a similar strategy could make Republicans in other red states more hesitant to oppose school choice—which would be good news for families clamoring for more educational freedom.
North Carolina is the first “purple” state to adopt universal choice, but Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper strongly opposed it—even declaring a “state of emergency” in response to the bill. He surely would have vetoed a stand-alone universal voucher plan, but the legislature included it in the budget, and he allowed it to become law without his signature.
Pennsylvania—a purple state with a Democrat governor, Republican Senate and Democrat House of Representatives—is a rather unique case. Josh Shapiro surprised a lot of people when he expressed support for an ESA program in his successful 2022 gubernatorial campaign. His representatives worked with Senate Republicans during budget negotiations and agreed on a $100 million ESA targeted to students assigned to low-performing public schools. However, teachers’ unions led a campaign against the program, and Pennsylvania House Democrats refused to support it. Ultimately, Shapiro went back on his agreement and used a line-item veto to kill the ESA to get the state budget enacted.
Happily for school choice advocates, the story doesn’t end there. Pennsylvania’s tax credit scholarship programs help tens of thousands of children attend a school of choice each year. But arbitrary caps mean tens of thousands of scholarship applications are also denied each year—which is one reason that option couldn’t help the bullied child I mentioned earlier. School choice supporters in the legislature kept up the pressure on the governor and House Democrats through the fall, however, and secured historic increases in the tax credit caps in mid-December in legislation signed by Shapiro.
On the flip side, Illinois families who participate in the Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program are as blue as their state after lawmakers let the program expire in December. The program currently has around 10,000 participants with an average scholarship of less than $8,000—quite a bargain compared with the average $21,000 spent per pupil in Illinois public schools. Those students will now have to either leave the school they’ve chosen using their scholarships or find new ways to afford the tuition. More than 26,000 kids who were on a waitlist for the program are now out of luck, too. In the months leading up to the end of the Invest in Kids program, numerous media stories spotlighted children who were thriving thanks to their scholarships. But these stories were apparently no match for the pressure or money from teachers’ unions.
It remains to be seen if Democrats—especially in other blue or purple states—will follow Shapiro’s lead and embrace more educational freedom, or travel the Illinois path of reducing families’ access to school choice.
Obstacles to School Choice
While the spread of universal choice is exciting, many challenges remain. For starters, even in so-called universal choice states, not everyone can utilize these programs. For example, Oklahoma’s new Parental Choice Tax Credit Act has universal access, but the budget cap means fewer than 10% of students can realistically participate. Other states’ programs have similar limitations.
There are also restrictions around what educational expenses qualify in each program. Vouchers and scholarships that are limited to private school tuition are certainly a huge improvement over having access only to a residentially assigned public school. But ESAs or other programs that allow for more diverse educational expenses can really allow parents to customize their children’s education. And even ESAs vary in terms of the actual benefits to students and parents. Iowa’s new universal ESA was a giant step toward educational freedom in the Hawkeye State, but the funds must be used for tuition and fees at an accredited nonpublic school before being used for other allowed expenses. That means Iowa ESA parents don’t have the type of flexibility enjoyed by parents in, say, Arizona.
Further, once school choice programs launch, parents and education providers—schools, tutors, special library programs, a la carte classes and so on—need to know about it. Nationwide, EdChoice polling finds that large majorities of Americans still haven’t heard of ESAs or vouchers. It is crucial for supporters in states with these programs to get the word out so parents and providers are aware of their options.
Letting potential providers know about these programs is one piece of the puzzle; removing barriers to entry into the education market is another. Entrepreneurship is always risky. But education entrepreneurship has unique challenges—navigating laws regarding childcare and compulsory education, dealing with building codes geared toward schools with hundreds of students and competing against “free” public schools. As I talk to “edupreneurs” around the country, I hear countless stories about the difficulties they face.
My colleague Kerry McDonald has studied these barriers and conducted focus groups with education entrepreneurs. Last year, she released a report outlining several policies that state and local governments can pursue to facilitate innovative educational models. The main thrust of her recommendations is to reduce or eliminate regulatory obstacles that make it hard for entrepreneurs to provide families with a wide range of education options. At the end of the day, even the best-designed school choice program won’t have much impact if parents have no educational options to choose from.
The good news is that edupreneurs needn’t go it alone. Several support organizations have sprung up in recent years to help people start and run new learning entities, navigate regulatory and legal issues, and understand how to participate in school choice programs. The National Microschooling Center and the Hybrid Schools Project at Kennesaw State University in Georgia offer helpful resources. Private grants to assist with various levels of expansion are available from organizations such as the VELA Education Fund, the Yass Prize and the Drexel Fund. And there are many individual entrepreneurs—often former teachers—who offer training and resources to help in the startup stages.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for school choice expansion in 2024. I previously discussed Texas Gov. Abbott endorsing school choice supporters over opponents in the March Republican primary. Last fall, my colleague Corey DeAngelis wrote in The Wall Street Journal that he expects Louisiana to adopt universal school choice, now that Republican Jeff Landry has been elected governor and supporters have increased their numbers in the legislature. Continuing the red state trend, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) announced a plan in November to bring a universal ESA to the state. In neighboring Kentucky, meanwhile, supporters are working to end Kentucky’s effective prohibition on any form of nonpublic school choice.
While it’s difficult explaining to desperate parents why ESAs or other school choice programs aren’t available to them, it’s exciting to see how many more families have gained access in recent years. The tides have turned, and it’s increasingly acknowledged that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education—and that’s true for teachers as much as for students. By continuing to expand universal school choice programs and reduce barriers to innovative educational options, we can give more children an individualized education that meets their specific needs.