There has never been a better moment for education freedom. In the modern era, America has never been closer than it is today to realizing Milton Friedman’s vision for universal education choice through education savings accounts (ESAs).
In his seminal essay, The Role of Government in Education (1955), Friedman argued that government-administered schooling should be viewed as incompatible with a society that otherwise “takes freedom of the individual, or more realistically the family, as its ultimate objective, and seeks to further this objective by relying primarily on voluntary exchange among individuals for the organization of economic activity”—as the United States does.1
It was in this essay that Friedman formalized his idea of separating the financing of education from the administration of schooling through school vouchers. As he explained: “[T]he administration of schools is neither required by the financing of education, nor justifiable in its own right in a predominantly free enterprise society.”2
It took 35 years for Friedman’s vision to come to fruition. In 1990, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, launched the first modern-day school voucher program. Today, 32 states and the District of Columbia operate 76 private-school-choice programs.3 Among those programs are the newest education choice mechanisms—ESAs. Born again from the mind of Milton Friedman, ESAs are the “partial vouchers” the economist would later outline in 2006. As he opined in a 2006 interview shortly before his death:
[T]here’s no reason to expect that the future market will have the shape or form that our present market has. How do we know how education will develop? Why is it sensible for a child to get all his or her schooling in one brick building? Why not add partial vouchers? Why not let them spend part of a voucher for math in one place and English or science somewhere else? Why should schooling have to be in one building? Why can’t a student take some lessons at home, especially now, with the availability of the Internet?4
Although there was no name for them yet, Friedman had conceptualized and articulated ESAs. Scholars, such as Dan Lips of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, Matthew Ladner of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, and Jonathan Butcher of The Heritage Foundation, and organizations like the Goldwater Institute then ran with the idea, helping ESAs to take legislative form in Arizona. As a result, the Grand Canyon State become the first in the nation to create an ESA option, putting the program into operation in 2011.
The program was a success and several states quickly followed Arizona’s lead. Florida adopted an ESA program in 2014, followed by Mississippi (2015), Tennessee (2015), North Carolina (2017), West Virginia (2021), Indiana (2021), and New Hampshire (2021). Today, 10 states have ESA programs, two of which (Missouri and Kentucky) have tax-credit-funded ESAs. This approach, which leverages individual or corporate contributions to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations that then provide an ESA to an eligible child, means that program funding never goes through the hands of the state. Private individuals or corporations donate to private nonprofit groups, which give ESAs to parents to choose (among other uses) a private school for their children. It is a design that would have made Friedman proud.
And, incredibly, in July 2022, Arizona expanded the ESA option to every single child in the state. Beginning in fall 2022, any parents or guardians who want to participate in the ESA option may do so. Not only is Arizona’s the first truly universal education choice program in the country, but its use of ESAs to do so leverages the most flexible education choice approach devised to date.
Data for this ranking were collected in early spring 2022, when Arizona’s universal ESA program had not yet been passed, so it is not reflected in this year’s ranking. Even so, Arizona ranks first overall for school choice on the Education Freedom Report Card.
Although education choice is critical for the future of education freedom in this country—and some would argue that it is the reform that catalyzes all other necessary reforms in K–12 education today—it is one of many factors we assess in this report card.5
Parent choice in education is a necessary, but insufficient, solution for families who want to help their children succeed in school and in life. Public and private schools have always been places where communities have wrestled with ideas and deeply held beliefs about faith and freedom. Public schools sit at the intersection between public policy and culture because taxpayer resources pay for these schools, and it is there that the next generation of Americans learns how to be participating members in civil society. Private schools remain places that parents who have the means choose when an assigned school does not meet their child’s needs.
The reasons why parents select private schools vary, but access to a religious education is a nontrivial one, as the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carson v. Makin demonstrated. In this case, parents in Maine wanted to choose a religious school when their local town did not offer an assigned public school. The Court ruled that state officials could not discriminate against religion in this decades-old school choice program.
It is not enough, though, for parents to be able to choose a private school. Existing traditional schools must still be held accountable to state and federal law—and state officials are responsible for doing so. Across the country, growing numbers of teachers have abandoned the practice of teaching their students about a shared sense of national identity, and districts are coercing teachers and students to affirm ideas that violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Schools are separating students into racial affinity groups, a practice that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education should have ended. Schools are teaching children to affirm the lie that America is systemically racist, despite seminal laws, such as the Civil Rights Act, and the monumental cultural shifts and racial progress brought on by the civil rights movement.
Claims that America is irredeemably racist, a central component of the Marxist movement known as “critical race theory,” are highly unpopular among Americans. One nationally representative survey found that 74 percent of active voters opposed lessons that teach students that white people are inherently privileged and black people are inherently oppressed.6
Lawmakers, then, should consider proposals that prevent any public official from compelling teachers or students to affirm or profess any ideas, especially concepts that violate state and federal civil rights laws.
Furthermore, lawmakers should require that public schools make instructional material accessible to parents, taxpayers, and policymakers. Since the lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic, when all schools had to deliver academic content online, it has been clear that traditional schools are able to make reading lists, syllabi, worksheets, and other assignments readily available. School officials can do so without violating copyright laws—teachers need not photocopy entire textbooks. But parents should know if teachers assign homework from the Black Lives Matter Week of Action website, for example, so that they can have informed discussions with their children, school administrators, and board members. Our report card accounts for state policymakers who have adopted provisions reaffirming state and federal civil rights laws and academic transparency provisions.
Overall, we measured four broad categories that encompass more than two dozen discrete factors:
1. Education Choice
Our education choice metric assesses whether states have an ESA program, general private school choice and the proportion of eligible and participating students, the percentage of homeschooled children, open-enrollment laws in the public education sector, and school district size, with smaller districts being preferable to large, centralized districts. Our education choice metric also includes an analysis of private-school-choice-program design, considering the extent to which states may overregulate school choice through requirements, such as state tests, price controls, admissions requirements, and accreditation. We assess the environment for charter schools using the Center for Education Reform’s and the Educational Freedom Institute’s charter school ranking systems, and we assess the environment for homeschooling using the ranking designed by the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. Arizona took first place for education choice, even without its now universal eligibility ESA provision. For parents looking for the widest array of education options, Arizona is the place to be.
2. Regulatory Freedom
Overburdensome regulations, often promulgated in the name of “accountability,” can hinder education freedom in a number of areas. To assess the regulatory freedom of a given state, we consider barriers to teaching, such as whether a state encourages alternative teacher certification and the number of teachers who have benefitted, or whether a state largely requires aspiring teachers to attend university-based colleges of education. We also examine whether a state allows full reciprocity of teacher licensure with other states. We report the percentage of districts in each state that employ a “chief diversity officer”—a position that, as Jay Greene and James Paul have said, largely exists to “provide political support and organization to one side of the debate over the contentious issues of race and opportunity.”7 States also received points in this ranking for no longer using—or never having used—restrictive Common Core–aligned tests. Mississippi topped our list of states for regulatory freedom.
Transparency is a critical tool for parents to know what their children are being taught in school. We use several metrics to assess states’ commitment to academic transparency. We consider whether a state has a strong anti–critical race theory law, which includes prohibitions on compelled speech and protections for students from school practices that violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We gauge parental empowerment by looking at the number of parent organizations per pupil and “indoctrination incidents” as logged by Parents Defending Education. And we rate states’ level of accountability to parents by examining the level of parent access to school curricula and materials, state-level requirements for public participation in meetings, a rating of state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws, and whether school board elections are on-cycle with general elections. Florida took first place in the category of education transparency, providing parents with strong tools to know what their children are being taught in the state’s public schools, a strong FOIA law, on-cycle school board elections, and more.
4. Return on Investment (ROI) for Education Spending
Our report card also examines the return on taxpayer investments in K–12 education in the states. We consider nominal and cost-of-living-adjusted (COLA) spending per pupil, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) outcomes and dollars spent per NAEP point, teacher-to-non-teacher staff ratios, and unfunded teacher pension liabilities as a proportion of state gross domestic product. Idaho took first place in this category, providing a high ROI for taxpayer spending on K–12 education.
The top-ranked state across the board in our 2022 Education Freedom Report Card is Florida. The Sunshine State embraces education freedom across the board. Florida does exceptionally well in allowing parents to choose among private, charter, and district schools, is home to a strong ESA program, and ranks third overall for education choice. Florida ranks first among states for academic transparency. Among other protections, state lawmakers set a high standard for academic transparency, and reject critical race theory’s pernicious ideas. The Sunshine State ranks second in regulatory freedom, making it one of the freest states for teachers and students to pursue education largely devoid of red tape. Although there is room for improvement, Florida ranks a respectable seventh overall in ROI for education spending. Families looking for a state that embraces education freedom, respects parents’ rights, and provides a decent ROI for taxpayers should look no further than Florida.
In second place overall this year in our report card is Arizona, a state that will certainly give Florida a run for its money next year in light of its recently expanded, now-universal ESA program. Idaho takes third place overall, thanks in large part to a strong ROI for taxpayer dollars and high levels of transparency to parents.
At the other end of the spectrum, New Jersey, New York, and the District of Columbia came in 49th, 50th, and 51st, respectively, doing little to provide transparency, accountability, and choice to families.
This report card sets a high bar for achieving and maintaining education freedom in the states. Our goal is that this annual ranking of states will not only inform parents and policymakers of what their states do well and where they need improvement, but that it will spur necessary and lasting reform.
 Milton Friedman, The Role of Government in Education, 1955, https://www.jbnoe.fr/IMG/pdf/friedman_-_cheque_education.pdf (accessed July 27, 2022).
 The ABCs of School Choice 2022 Edition, Ed Choice, https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/2022-ABCs-FINAL-WEB-002.pdf (accessed July 27, 2022).
 For a full explanation of the metrics, data collection, and analysis, see the Methodology Appendix of this site.
 Parents Defending Education, “National Poll: Americans Overwhelmingly Reject ‘Woke’ Race and Gender Policies in K–12 Education,” May 10, 2021, https://defendinged.org/commentaries/parents-defending-education-national-poll-americans-overwhelmingly-reject-woke-race-and-gender-policies-in-k-12-education/ (accessed July 27, 2022).
 Jay P. Greene and James D. Paul, “Equity Elementary: ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ Staff in Public Schools,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3666, October, 19, 2021, https://www.heritage.org/education/report/equity-elementary-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-staff-public-schools.