by Brendan Clarey
As the school year ends and legislative sessions adjourn, Chalkboard updated its review of which legislatures nationwide are implementing school choice measures that provide education options for students and their families and which states have removed them.
Several states across the country have recently adopted legislation that would allow students to attend any school of their choice using taxpayer dollars, something that advocates call universal school choice. Critics of the legislation say such measures will divert money away from public school systems that need the funds.
Different terms fall under the school choice umbrella, according to Robert Enlow, president and CEO of school choice nonprofit EdChoice, and not all school choice measures are the same.
Enlow told Chalkboard that not all school choice legislation is equal. He pointed out that states that have universal school choice may not let everyone into the program because of program caps or budget constraints. So students who would otherwise be eligible are left out of the program.
“It’s fantastic that we’re getting universal eligibility and those programs, like in Indiana and Florida and Arizona – which have not just eligibility but funded eligibility – those things are amazing,” Enlow said
He also said that some state programs don’t allow for school choice program dollars to go to multiple uses and specify that funds must be used for tuition instead of other related expenses. Iowa, for example, restricts program funds but Arkansas allows families to use them multiple ways, Enlow said.
According to EdChoice, there are 12 states with education savings accounts (ESAs), 26 voucher programs in 15 states and others have implemented tax credit accounts, scholarships and deductions.
Here’s where lawmakers and state officials have recently taken action on school choice legislation in state houses:
Gov. Greg Abbott says he will call a special legislative session this summer as lawmakers did not pass meaningful school choice measures in the state.
The Senate on Tuesday approved a version of school choice legislation that would grant $8,000 to any public school student. But the House has been hesitant to embrace school choice.
Abbott promised to veto the bill if the House version passes and call lawmakers back to Austin until they pass the version he wants, which includes increasing the number of special needs students who can apply for the ESA program, “expanding school choice options through ESAs to all Texas students,” and amending the Texas Constitution to “bolster a parent’s right as the primary decision maker in all matters involving their child.”
Gov. Roy Cooper recently called a Republican-backed bill to expand opportunity scholarships a “state of emergency.” The legislation, which has passed in both chambers of the state House, would allow all students to use education savings accounts to attend private schools or cover educational expenses.
The bill that would create a tiered system based on income is expected to be lifted into law by veto override. North Carolina would be the first state without a government trifecta to implement school choice measures, and seventh overall. Democrats have opposed the use of funds for private schools.
Oklahoma lawmakers passed legislation on school choice that Gov. Kevin Stitt signed on May 25. The legislation creates $150 million in tax credits for homeschooling and private school based on income.
Students in private K-12 schools will receive between $5,000 and $7,500 for tuition and homeschooled students will be eligible to receive $1,000. The legislation expands the amount of state funds in subsequent years, reaching $250 million for private school tuition by 2026 and $5 million for homeschool credits by 2025.
On May 24, the Nebraska Legislature passed the state’s first school choice bill and sent it to Gov. Jim Pillen’s desk. Pillen has indicated that he would sign it.
The “Opportunity Scholarships Act” program would create a $25 million tax credit scholarship program that will grow to $100 million. The program requirements will prioritize scholarships for low-income students and those with special needs or other circumstances.
Taxpayers in the state can direct half of what they owe in income taxes toward scholarships, up to $100,000, according to the Nebraska Examiner.
“Today is about the kids and families in Nebraska whose lives will be changed thanks to the freedom to attend a school that best fits their needs,” bill sponsor Sen. Lou Ann Linehan said in a statement.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed legislation on May 8 that would allow students to attend any public school, according to reporting from The Center Square.
The signed legislation codifies open enrollment for public schools but does not allow students to use public funds for private school tuition, homeschooling or other educational costs.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed school choice legislation on May 4. The law creates education scholarships for select elementary and secondary students so they can attend the school of their choice, according to The Center Square.
Under the signed legislation, called the Educational Scholarship Trust Fund, students with “a statement of Medicaid eligibility” can receive scholarships of up to $6,000 for textbooks, tutoring, computers, tuition, transportation or other education expenses.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed legislation on May 4 that drastically expanded the state’s voucher program eligibility. The program now covers 97% of all students in the state, according to EdChoice.
When the changes take effect next school year, any student in a family of four that makes under $220,000 will be able to use a voucher for a school of their choice. More than 50,000 students currently utilize the state’s voucher program, according to EdChoice.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recently signed a bill to expand the state’s pilot educational savings account program from Davidson (Nashville) and Shelby (Memphis) counties to include Hamilton County (Chattanooga). The pilot program began in the fall of 2022 following the end of a court injunction on the program, which was initially passed in 2019, according to The Center Square.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed a school choice bill in April that would have sent $10 million to private schools for students. The Senate voted to override the bill but the House did not.
Burgum said the legislation did “not go far enough to promote competition and expand choice in K-12 education” which if done incorrectly “could impede our ability to expand school choice in a meaningful way in the years ahead,” according to The Center Square.
The program would have tasked the superintendent of public instruction with establishing and administering “an educational reimbursement program to reimburse qualified schools for qualified education expenses of program participants.”
Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed Senate Bill 1125 in March. The law will allow parents to send their students to any public school they choose. That legislation comes after the state adopted the Empowering Parents grant program, which grants up to $1,000 per child or $3,000 per family for education-related expenses.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that expands the state’s education savings account program to all of the state’s school children at a ceremony in Miami on March 27, according to The Center Square.
House Bill 1 will eliminate financial eligibility restrictions and the current enrollment cap when it goes into effect on July 1.
Utah became the third state to pass universal school choice when Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB 215 in January.
As Chalkboard previously reported, the Funding for Teacher Salaries and Optional Education Act provides up to $8,000 for any student for tuition or other approved educational expenses but is limited to 5,000 participants for its first year.
Utah was the second state to enact a universal school choice program this year, after Iowa. Arizona passed its law last year.
Iowa enacted the Students First Act on Jan. 24, and the state is now implementing the legislation’s creation of education savings accounts ahead of the launch in the 2023-2024 school year.
Arizona was the first state in the country to offer a universal school choice option. As of May, more than 55,000 students participated in the Empowerment Scholarship program.
Democratic legislators battled over the state budget compromise for its lack of either a moratorium or outright rollback of the program. Ultimately, lawmakers sent a budget to Gov. Katie Hobbs without any reduction.
As of April, the state Department of Education told The Center Square that half of participating students came from a public school.
Here’s what other states have done
A number of other states have seen challenges for or against school choice, while others have seen lawmakers or state leaders limiting measures or letting programs expire.
Kansas lawmakers failed to coalesce on a school choice bill in April before the end of the legislative session that would stand up to the state’s Democratic governor.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has targeted over 21,000 online public charter schools with $42 million in budget cuts. Each online charter public school student would lose at least $1,463.
Senate Democrats in California killed a Republican bill in April that would have created education savings accounts for students.
A federal lawsuit was filed against Maine’s education agency and other branches of government over the state’s school choice laws. The case centers on a religious school not being able to accept public school students due to the religious nature of the curriculum.
Georgia saw legislation creating state-funded education savings accounts pass through the Senate Education Committee, but the bill was shot down in late March by the House. Senate Bill 233, also called the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, would have allowed taxpayers to fund student scholarships up to $6,500, according to The Center Square.
Virginia also saw multiple education savings account bills introduced in the House and Senate, but those bills were ultimately killed in the Senate which voted to “pass by indefinitely” on the legislation.
Democratic lawmakers in Illinois are allowing the state’s only scholarship-based school choice program, known as Invest in Kids, to expire at the end of 2023 unless a special session is called or it is addressed in veto session in the fall. Funded solely by private donations, the program has awarded over 37,000 scholarships worth $280 million since 2018, when it launched. Letting it expire would mean the state would not have meaningful school choice measures implemented.
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Brendan Clarey is K-12 editor at Chalkboard Review. Reach him at [email protected]. The following writers from The Center Square contributed to this report: Sarah Roderick-Fitch, Dan McCaleb, David Mastio, Steve Wilson, Bruce Walker, Kim Jarrett, Alan Wooten and Jon Styf.
Photo “Time for School” by L.A. Schools.