Two years ago, 2021 was declared “The Year of Education Choice,” when 19 states enacted 32 new or expanded education choice policies.
This year could be even bigger, as more states consider making choice policies available to all K-12 students.
In 2021, West Virginia became the first state to enact a publicly funded education choice policy for all students, followed by Arizona the next year. This year, the number of states with universal choice policies has already doubled, with the addition of Iowa and Utah last month.
Now a slew of other states are advancing bills to empower families to choose the learning environments that align with their values and work best for their children. Most of the bills would create K-12 education savings accounts, which allow families to tap into a portion of the state education funds dedicated to their child, to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curriculums, online learning, special-needs therapy, and more.
More than a dozen states are poised to enact education choice legislation this year, nine of which are already making significant strides in advancing choice policies.
In her response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Feb. 7, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared that she would soon unveil “the most far-reaching, bold, conservative education reform in the country.”
The next day, Sanders announced her “Arkansas LEARNS” initiative, which she said is intended to “educate, not indoctrinate our kids, and put students on a path to success.” At the center of the plan is a K-12 ESA policy that, like Iowa’s, will phase in eligibility to all students in the state over three years.
“Our new Education Freedom Account allows parents to enroll their kids in whatever school is most appropriate for their family, whether it be public, private, parochial, or homeschool,” Sanders said. “We’re rolling out this program for our most at-risk families first, and within three years, it’ll be available to every family in Arkansas.”
The bill would also lift the cap on charter schools, modernize school transportation, increase teacher pay (including merit bonuses), and ban Arkansas public schools from indoctrinating students in critical race theory.
The plan appears to have strong support in the state Legislature. “This bill includes everything I wanted,” said Arkansas Senate President Bart Hester. “A lot of work has gone into this, and it will benefit parents and teachers in this state.”
Florida Speaker of the House Paul Renner, a Republican, recently unveiled House Bill 1, which would expand Florida’s ESA, known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship, to all K-12 students.
“School choice empowers parents, creates competition, fosters innovation, and raises the level of excellence in all of our schools,” Renner said. “HB 1 will give every parent the freedom to customize their children’s education with a learning program that fits their unique needs.”
Last year, Florida was ranked No. 1 for education freedom in The Heritage Foundation’s inaugural Education Freedom Report Card, and was ranked No. 3 for education choice behind Arizona and Indiana.
At an event launching the report card, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed his desire to make the Sunshine State the first in the nation for education choice as well.
“Florida’s schoolchildren are thriving because we invest in our students, and we empower parents to decide what learning environment is best for their kids,” said DeSantis. Expanding eligibility for the ESAs to all students would make Florida much more competitive for the top spot.
However, the bill has some areas that need improvement.
As written, the bill would require ESA students being educated at home to either take a nationally norm-referenced test of their choice or the state test. However, Florida’s homeschool statute allows for three additional evaluation options, including an individual evaluation by a Florida-certified teacher of the family’s choice, a psychological evaluation, or another method mutually agreed upon by the family and the local superintendent.
Ideally, the ESA policy would allow students being educated at home to use any of the five evaluation options allowed by the homeschool statute.
Additionally, the bill would require families of ESA students educated at home to meet annually with a “choice navigator” at the scholarship organization that manages the ESAs—something that none of the 10 states with ESA programs currently requires. The choice navigators are supposed to “assist parents with the selection of, application for, and enrollment in educational options that address the academic needs of their student.”
Although this could prove a useful service for parents who want it, requiring all home educators to meet with the navigators is unnecessary and patronizing.
Policymakers could easily fix this issue by making the choice navigators an optional service, rather than a requirement.
Earlier this week, the Idaho Senate Education Committee passed the Freedom in Education Act to make ESAs available to all K-12 students.
“Education is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” noted bill sponsor state Sen. Tammy Nichols. “This bill creates the framework for success, and we want our students to be successful.”
Echoing a popular theme, state Sen. Brian Lenney argued, “Our education funding is meant for educating children, not for protecting a particular institution.”
The bill will now go before the full Idaho Senate.
Last week, Kentucky lawmakers and local education activists unveiled a proposed constitutional amendment that would permit state lawmakers to enact school choice programs.
The amendment comes in response to a flawed decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court in December that struck down the state’s tax credit-funded ESA policy.
In September, The Heritage Foundation’s inaugural Education Freedom Report Card ranked Kentucky No. 8 in the nation for education choice and No. 30 overall for education freedom, due in large part to the state’s well-designed ESA policy on Education Opportunity Accounts. Without the ESA policy, Kentucky would rank No. 38 in the nation for education choice on Heritage’s Education Freedom Report Card and No. 41 for education freedom overall.
“Last year, the people of Kentucky elected the most pro-school choice General Assembly that has ever existed,” said the amendment’s sponsor, state Rep. Josh Calloway, R-Irvington, at a press conference announcing the amendment. “Time and again, they have spoken out loudly in support of more educational choice options.”
Likewise, Andrew Vandiver, president of EdChoice Kentucky, highlighted the public’s support for school choice, noting, “Nearly 75% of Republican voters support the amendment, and nearly 60% of independent voters. That’s a strong showing for educational choice.”
“We must also empower students and their families,” declared Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne at an event last week. “This House majority will fund students … not systems.”
Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature is set to hear a bill to create a tax credit scholarship policy. The policy would offer tax credits to taxpayers who contribute to nonprofit scholarship organizations. Families of eligible students could apply to the scholarship organizations for assistance with private school tuition.
“We’re talking about kids in ZIP codes that don’t have any other options except to pay tuition or go to public schools they’re zoned to,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Lou Ann Linehan. “They might thrive in another school. They ought to have the option.”
Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen said that the school choice bill has his “full endorsement and support,” noting that lawmakers should “focus on students, not systems.”
“Parents spoke loud and clear at the ballot box last November in support of our vision to create more options for kids,” declared newly reelected Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt during his fifth State of the State address. “We know not every student learns the same way. Every child deserves a quality education that fits their unique needs, regardless of economic status, or background. Let’s fund students, not systems. Let’s create more schools, not fewer schools.”
So far, two bills have been filed that would create ESAs for all K-12 students in Oklahoma. The proposals have the support of many top policymakers, including newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters. “School choice is critical to parents and kids,” said Walters at a National School Choice Week event this year. “It is the only way we will be able to lead in education. Oklahoma must and will have the most expansive school choice program in the country.”
However, not everyone is on board. Despite previously indicating his openness to ESAs, state House Speaker Charles McCall, a Republican, has expressed opposition to the ESA bills, which he says “could hurt rural districts.”
Yet, as detailed in a recent Heritage Foundation study, states with robust education choice policies such as Arizona have seen rural schools improve their performance faster than the national average.
Moreover, according to a recent Sooner Survey poll in Oklahoma, 78% of Republicans and 70% of rural voters support education choice policies. Oklahoma policymakers would be wise to listen to their constituents’ desire to expand educational opportunity for all.
Earlier this month, by a vote of 28-15, the South Carolina Senate passed a bill to create ESAs worth about $6,000 each for up to 15,000 students from low- and middle-income families. The bill now goes to the South Carolina House of Representatives for further consideration.
“There is a growing awareness that, in our traditional K-12 schools, it’s not just reading, writing, and arithmetic anymore,” said bill sponsor state Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican. “There’s a social agenda layered into it. And I think those things are sort of driving this [school choice] movement. It’s got resonance now.”
Of course, the details matter. As The Heritage Foundation’s Jonathan Butcher recently wrote, South Carolina policmakers “need to make sure the details that helped derail last year’s proposal do not stall the current proposals.”
For example, lawmakers need to specify that the new “education scholarship trust fund” refers to the state’s office that will operate the new accounts, while “education savings accounts” refers to individual student accounts. Technical details like that in the proposal might mean the difference between well-functioning accounts and language that gets mired in litigation (or stalls before implementation).
Families are counting on state lawmakers to get the policy right. A recent poll by the South Carolina Policy Council found that 60% of South Carolina voters support ESAs.
Education choice is a top agenda item for Texas policymakers this legislative session. After years of efforts to expand educational opportunity in the Lone Star State, Texas finally appears poised to enact a robust ESA policy.
“The governor and I are all in on school choice,” declared Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick last month. “We are going to pass school choice, and I hope, finally, that this is the session that we join over 30 other states in giving parental rights to parents to choose the school of their choice.”
Texas has long lagged in providing families with education options. The Heritage Foundation’s Education Freedom Report Card ranked Texas No. 35 in the nation for providing education choice—behind even California and Illinois.
But that could change if lawmakers adopt one of several proposals to create education choice policies. For example, Senate Bill 176, introduced by state Sen. Mayes Middleton, a Republican, would create an ESA policy that would empower families to pay for private school tuition, distance learning, tutoring, and more.
“Our job, as leaders of Texas, is to provide the best education possible for our children,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at a recent event promoting education freedom and parent empowerment. “No one knows better how a child can flourish than their parents, but without educational freedom, parents are hindered in helping their child succeed. That must change, and it must change this legislative session.”
Earlier this month, the Wyoming Senate passed the Freedom Scholarship Act, which would create ESAs worth $6,000 annually for all K-12 students in the state. The bill now goes to the Wyoming House of Representatives for further consideration.
“All children in Wyoming should have access to the highest-quality education possible,” declared Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, in his recent School Choice Week proclamation. “Educational variety not only helps diversify our economy, but also enhances the vibrancy of our community.”
That’s just a taste of what’s to come. Other states such as Alabama, Georgia, Montana, and Ohio are also expected to make progress toward empowering all families with education choice this year.
What’s clear is that parents are clamoring for policies that allow them to choose the learning environments that align with their values and work best for their children. State lawmakers would be wise to listen.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal