(The Daily Signal) – The momentum for school choice is continuing to build nationwide.
Eight states have enacted new education choice policies or have expanded existing ones so far this year, including Indiana, Montana, and South Carolina earlier this month alone.
Of the eight, four states—Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, and Utah—enacted school choice policies that will be available to all K-12 students, joining Arizona and West Virginia in making every child eligible for education savings accounts or ESA-like policies that allow families to choose the learning environments that align with their values and work best for their children.
Indiana came close by expanding eligibility for its voucher and tax-credit scholarship policies to about 97% of K-12 students statewide. South Carolina’s new ESA is limited to low- and middle-income families, while Montana’s new ESA will expand education options for students with special needs.
More states have adopted robust education choice policies this year than ever before—and several state legislatures are still in session. This week, three state legislatures are making progress toward adopting new education choice policies or significantly expanding existing ones.
This week, the New Hampshire state Senate will vote on a bill to raise the income-eligibility threshold for the state’s Education Freedom Accounts from 300% of the federal poverty line to 350% (about $97,000 for a families of four). According to EdChoice, nearly 45% of Granite State families would be eligible. The bill has already passed the New Hampshire House of Representatives and the Senate Education Committee.
More than 3,000 students are currently enrolled in the program, which is nearly 2% of the approximately 165,000 K-12 students statewide.
“Half of the children enrolled are living below the poverty level,” said New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. “These families are seeking a nontraditional instructional model for their children who may not have found educational success.”
According to the New Hampshire Department of Education, 1,504 of the 3,025 ESA students are eligible for the federally subsidized free and reduced-price lunch program, and 187 are students with special needs. Of the 1,453 students who enrolled in the ESA program for the first time during this academic year, about 400 switched from a public school.
New Hampshire’s ESA has proven to be very popular. In a recent Morning Consult poll, 7 out of 10 Granite Staters expressed support for education savings accounts, as did 73% of parents of K-12 students.
The Education Freedom Account expansion bill has the strong support of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who declared in his State of the State address in February that the accounts are “finally ensuring that the system works for families and that the system meets the needs of the child—not the other way around.”
On Monday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, alongside House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Greg Treat, announced a deal that would make Oklahoma the seventh state in the nation to adopt a universal education choice policy.
The plan includes a refundable personal-use tax credit worth $5,000 per student in the first year. All families would be eligible to receive the credits, but priority would be given to families earning less than $250,000 per year.
A total of up to $200 million in tax credits would be available. By year three, the tax credits would be worth $6,500 per pupil, and the caps on income and total tax credits available would be eliminated.
As a part of the deal, the state would spend more than $600 million more on public schools, including funds earmarked for teacher pay raises.
The deal follows months of wrangling among state policymakers, with each legislative chamber sending its own proposals and counterproposals to the other.
In an effort to pressure the Legislature to reach a compromise, Stitt vetoed a score of unrelated bills. At several points, local advocates expressed concern that negotiations had broken down and that the prospects of enacting significant education reform were in jeopardy.
Stitt and legislative leaders gave credit to former Oklahoma Chief Justice Steven Taylor for helping to bring the parties together to iron out the final agreement.
“This really is an historic day,” Stitt declared at a press conference on Monday. “This is a win for every single student [and] every parent. I’m proud to get this across the finish line for all Oklahomans.”
On Monday, the Texas House Education Committee heard testimony on a proposal to create a new ESA policy. The Texas Senate previously passed a bill to create ESAs worth $8,000 for all Texas K-12 students, which has been a top priority for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
Over the weekend, the House released its own version that reduced eligibility only to students with special needs and those assigned to low-performing district schools. In a statement on Sunday, Abbott threatened to veto the watered-down version of the bill, and encouraged lawmakers to reconsider earlier versions of the proposal:
Empowering parents to choose the best educational path for their child remains an essential priority this session. A majority of Texans from across the state and from all backgrounds support expanding school choice.
The Senate’s version of school choice makes about 5.5 million students eligible, while the House’s version of that bill proposed last week would make about 4 million students eligible.
The latest House version of school choice, which came out this weekend, only applies to about 800,000 students. It also provides less funding for special education students than the original House version of the Senate bill and denies school choice to low-income families that may desperately need expanded education options for their children.
This latest version does little to provide meaningful school choice, and legislators deserve to know that it would be vetoed if it reached my desk. Instead, the original House version of the Senate bill provides a more meaningful starting point to begin House-Senate negotiations.
The negotiations over the ESA proposal may have wider implications for public education in Texas. After Abbott and school choice advocates objected to a proposal that would have mandated the state’s standardized test for core subjects—the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (“STAAR”) test—for ESA students, House lawmakers released a subsequent proposal that would eliminate the test for all K-12 students in Texas—an idea that met Abbott’s approval.
Eliminating the state test would be a good thing for all schools. Lawmakers have an interest in ensuring accountability, but mandating a single test unnecessarily restricts private school autonomy and reduces the number and diversity of education options available to families.
Mandating a single test can distort how schools and other education providers operate, rewarding those who align their curriculum and teaching methods to the test and punishing those who don’t. That creates a strong incentive for schools to teach to the test, rather than teach what they think is in the best interests of students.
Lawmakers could strike a balance between accountability and school autonomy by allowing schools to choose among a menu of nationally norm-referenced tests, like the Stanford 10 or Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which show how well a student is doing relative to his or her peers. Such a policy would preserve the quantity of diversity of education options available to families, while ensuring that parents have access to objective data regarding student performance.
In the end, the highest form of accountability is when informed parents have the freedom to choose the learning environments that work best for their children.
If the Texas Legislature fails to adopt a sufficiently robust ESA policy, Abbott threatened to call special sessions until it does. “Parents and their children deserve no less,” he said.
More Progress to Come
Several other states are also making progress toward enacting education choice policies.
In Alabama, two bills received the support of the state Senate Committee on Finance and Taxation-Education earlier this month. The Parental Rights in Children’s Education (PRICE) Act would create an ESA worth about $6,900 a year for all students.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Larry Stutts, a Republican, expressed gratitude that his education choice bill has progressed “further than it’s ever been before,” noting that he’s “happy to have it in that position.” Meanwhile, another bill would expand eligibility and funding for the state’s tax-credit scholarships.
Last month, Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature passed a bill to create a tax-credit scholarship policy on a vote of 33-16. The bill is still pending a final reading.
Likewise, the North Carolina Senate Education and Higher Education Committee passed a bill last month that would expand the state’s ESA policy to all K-12 students. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper threatened to veto the bill, but the bill is co-sponsored by all of the North Carolina General Assembly’s Republicans—enough to override a veto.
In Ohio, the General Assembly is considering several education choice proposals, including the Backpack Bill, which would create ESAs for all students, as well as Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s proposal to expand eligibility for the state’s voucher program to families earning up to 400% of the federal poverty line ($120,000 for a family of four), up from 250%.
Even if none of the pending proposals above is enacted, 2023 still will go down in history as a landmark year for education choice.
After the wave of choice policies adopted in 2021, education policy wonks frequently wondered whether it was a “tipping point” or merely a “flash in the pan.” This year’s school choice tidal wave should remove all doubt.