6 States Ponder New ‘School Choice’ Programs; Florida Eyes ‘Universal’ Expansion

Lawmakers in at least six states, including Texas, will ponder 2023 bills proposing to establish new “school choice” programs with Florida legislators looking to expand what is already the nation’s largest use of taxpayer dollars for private school tuitions when they convene in March.

Depending how “school choice” is defined, 47 states offered various taxpayer-funded programs in 2021 to more than 660,000 students—mostly children with special needs—according to the Florida-based National School Choice Awareness Foundation (NSCAF), a nonprofit that orchestrates the annual January National School Choice Week, which is Jan. 22 to 28 this year.

For advocates, “school choice” describes programs that give parents state money to send their children to a school of their choice, including private schools. The most common are education service accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships.

There are 76 ESA and tax-credit programs on the books in 32 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico that offered vouchers and/or tax-credit scholarships for students based on family income to more than 350,000 students in 2021, reports EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Proponents maintain that school choice is gaining acceptance among demographic and political groups that were once its most ardent opponents. For instance, Pennsylvania’s newly elected Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro included a school choice mechanism, education savings accounts, into his successful 2022 gubernatorial campaign.

Nearly 54 percent of parents of more than 3,800 surveyed told NSCAF that there have considered a new school for their children in the past year, with the rate of dissatisfaction increasing with the age of the parents, and 65 percent expressing interest in exploring schools choice options available in their state.

NSCAF Vice President of Public Awareness Shelby Doyle told The Epoch Times that the surveys confirm years’ long trends, especially among non-white parents.

“We’ve only been doing our parent surveys for a couple of years. But for the last couple of years, this interest has been consistent from all of the different demographic groups,” she said.

Part of that increase in interest comes from a marketing tweak. School choice proponents dismiss the longtime education financing model where school districts receive per-pupil funding and instead encourage parents to think of the state’s per-pupil allocation as their child’s money that can be spent how parents want it spent—even if it is tuition at a private school.

Senior Fellow with the American Federation for Children, Corey DeAngelis, told The Epoch Times that money in state school systems should be attached to individual students, not to whatever school district is in a student’s post office zip code.

“We should fund students, not systems,” DeAngelis said.

School Choice Funding Choices

American Heart Association Teaching Gardens Planting In Harlem
Students at the KIPP Infinity Charter School in New York, N.Y., attend the American Heart Association Teaching Gardens Planting in Harlem. The presence of charter schools is viewed as a way to create school choices and parental engagement, according to the Parent Power Index. (Neilson Barnard/AHA/Getty Images)

Of the 26 states that offer some form of public money for private school scholarships, the most common three are education savings accounts, school vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships.

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 360,000 students across 21 states, the District of Columbia, and several territories attended private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, secured inter/intra district transfers, engaged in homeschooling, online learning, or other customized learning accommodation through their state’s school choice program, EdChoice reports.

Breaking down school choice programs, the more popular three options were:

— Education Services Accounts: Education service accounts first gained prominence in 2011 when Arizona created the nation’s first ESA program. In 2014, the ESA program was declared constitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court in 2014, clearing the way for seven other states to adopt similar programs.

In an ESA program, parents receive a deposit of public funds—usually a percentage or, of equivalent to, state per-student allocations—to use for education-related expenses, ranging from online learning, tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses, and private school tuition and fees.

There are eight states with ESA programs that served a combined 30,992 students during the 2020-21 school year. They received an average amount of $11,140. Arizona and Florida accounted for more than 28,000 of the nearly 31,000 students enrolled in ESAs nationwide.

The Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program was enacted in 2011. During the 2020-21 school year, the program paid for 9,669 student ESAs attending 124 schools. The awards averaged between $6,400 and $14,543 each.

The Florida Family Empowerment Scholarship Program was enacted in 2014. During the 2020-21 school year, 18,585 students attending 1,870 schools enrolled in the program, receiving an average award of $10,267.

The new West Virginia Hope Scholarship Program, adopted during the state legislature’s 2022 session, awards ESAs that are “equal to 100 percent of the prior year’s statewide average per pupil allocation.” That was about $4,600 in 2020-21.

“West Virginia’s Hope Scholarship Program is the most expansive ESA in the country and has the potential to help tens of thousands of students obtain the educational services that best fit their needs. It is a model for other states to emulate,” EdChoice writes.

Under the new law, approximately 93 percent of West Virginia K-12 students are eligible to receive an ESA if switching out of a public school. If the total amount of Hope Scholarship recipients in 2024 is less than 5 percent of the state’s entire public school enrollment, then all K-12 students will be eligible for ESAs beginning in July 2026.

Indiana’s program can only serve a maximum of 2,000 students a year. ESA programs in Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Tennessee are tightly restricted and geared to students with special needs.

— School Voucher Programs: Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico offer 29 school voucher programs that collectively served 265,526 students during the 2020-21 school year. The students received an average award of $6,263 each, of which 53 percent came from private funds.

Programs in Oklahoma, Utah, Puerto Rico, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida (two vouchers), and Mississippi (two vouchers) are exclusively for students with disabilities.

Tennessee’s voucher program is a component of the legislature’s “Education Savings Account Pilot program.” Vouchers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are awarded as part of each state’s “Town Tutoring” programs.

Ohio has five voucher programs: two to serve students with special needs with the other three, including the statewide Income-Based Scholarship Program, open to students from families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Wisconsin has four voucher programs: one to serve students with special needs, two to serve low-income families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, and the Parental Choice Program, which serves students from low-income families statewide earning up to 220 percent of the federal poverty level.

In the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, students from families earning up to 277.5 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible, as are all Individualized Education Plan (IEP) students in a low-performing district school.

Students from families earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty line can participate in the Louisiana Scholarship Program, up to 185 percent are eligible to receive vouchers from Maryland’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) program, and up to 246 percent in North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program.

— Tax-Credit Programs: Tax-credit scholarships (TCS) grant full or partial tax credits to donors, which may include corporations and individuals, when they contribute to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships.

There are 26 tax-credit programs across 21 states that issued 325,168 scholarships during the 2020-21 school year averaging $3,715, with 72 percent of the money coming from private sources.

Arizona, Georgia, and Montana have TCS programs that do not restrict student eligibility based on income or special-needs status. In Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Virginia, eligibility is based on income.

There are TCS programs in Arizona and South Carolina specifically designed for students with special needs, and one in Florida for victims of bullying or abuse.

The nation’s largest TCS program is Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship Program, which served 106,112 students enrolled in 1,945 schools during the 2020-21 school year. The average grants were $6,239—about 65 percent of the state’s per-pupil base allocation.

The scholarships are available to families earning up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level. There is $873.6 million in tax credits available annually for the program, which is equivalent to 2.9 percent of Florida’s total K-12 revenues. The tax credit cap automatically increases by 25 percent each year if at least 90 percent of the fund is used.

Pennsylvania’s two tax-credit scholarship programs, the Education Improvement Tax Credit and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, each limit participation to students from families earning no more than $77,648 plus $15,230 per each dependent child. The limit is adjusted annually based on inflation, and students with special needs have higher income limits.

Key 2022 School Choice Advances

Doug Ducey attends a celebration
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey attends a celebration of the signing of a universal Empowerment Scholarship law that allows all students to use an ESA account to attend the school of their choice. (Gov. Doug Ducey’s office)

In 2020, New Hampshire lawmakers expanded their state’s school choice programs. In 2021, North Carolina legislators approved funding increases for annual school choice options until the state is spending $145 million a year subsidizing private schools.

In 2022, Arizona’s new school choice law went into effect on Sept. 30 after a bid to repeal it with a proposed constitutional amendment failed to gather enough signatures to get on the 2024 ballot, and the Tennessee ESA Act, a 2019 bill that created a school choice pilot program, wasn’t launched until fall 2022 after the state’s Supreme Court cleared it of legal challenges.

During their 2022 session, Arizona lawmakers adopted House Bill 2853, which expands the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program and removes restrictions on how the state’s 1.1 million K-12 students can spend their annual $7,000 ESA grant, including for homeschooling expenses or private school tuition.

Critics, including Save Our Schools, argue that the ESA program will siphon $76 million from public schools and funnel it into private schools and homeschooling. They predict the program will balloon to more than $1 billion a year and bankrupt the public schools the vast majority of Arizona K-12 students will still be attending.

Under the 2019 Tennessee ESA Act, eligible families could receive approximately $8,100 in public tax dollars in ESAs to help pay for private schooling tuition and other pre-approved expenses.

Beacon Center of Tennessee President and Chief Executive Officer Justin Owen told The Epoch Times that support for school choice is clearly growing in Tennessee.

“A whole lot of polls show people overwhelmingly support choice and that cuts across party lines—Republican, Democrat. It really is something that people support and I think that legislative support for it has grown, too,” he said.

2023 School Choice Bills, Initiatives

Epoch Times Photo
Texas Rep. Steve Toth (L) at a June 2022 news conference in Houston in June is among co-sponsors of bills that would establish a tax-credit scholarship program in the Lone Star State. (Darlene Sanchez/The Epoch Times)

School choice bills have been filed, or are expected to be filed, in Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Iowa, Montana, and Kentucky, among other states, during their 2023 sessions. Florida lawmakers will ponder a proposed “universal” program that would allow virtually any family to participate.

Groups such as Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) told The Epoch Times they are investing $1 million to push school legislation in 14 states from New England to Texas, which is regarded as the uncrowned jewel in the school choice movement.

Here’s a roundup of 2023 school choice bills or emerging initiatives in state legislatures across the country:

— Texas: After decades of rejections, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Texas GOP leadership are convinced Texas will finally adopt a school choice program in 2023. To that end, Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville) has introduced SB 176, which would create a school choice program similar to Arizona’s.

SB 176 would create an ESA program that would allow families to opt out of the state’s public education system to receive the average per-pupil annual education allocation, which would be about $10,000 a year.

Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) has filed House Bill 619, which would give tax credits to individuals who make contributions to private school scholarship funds. Another measure HB 557, sponsored by Rep. Cody Vasut (R-Angleton), would authorize the state to reimburse parents for private school tuition.

The bills are the most significant push for school choice in Texas since 2017, when similar bills faced stiff opposition from rural communities, especially in North Texas,. and public schools advocates who argue that the programs degrade public schools.

— Virginia: Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) has filed HB 1508, which would create the “Virginia Education Success Account Program.”

Under HB 1508, parents of any Virginia child enrolled in public school can spend an average of $6,000 annually on tuition, fees, and textbooks at private K-12 schools or use them for homeschooling expenses.

Davis told The Epoch Times that the ESAs created in his bill would spur competition among schools to garner students. “Our goal should be to improve the educational outcomes for all students,” he said, noting “too many students are trapped in schools that are failing them, especially in our historically black communities. This bill allows parents to choose the educational experience best suited for their child.”

“Virginia House Bill 1508 would fund students directly and empower families to choose the education providers that best meet their needs and align with their values,” American Federation for Children Senior Fellow Corey DeAngelis told The Epoch Times.

HB 1508 is one of four school choice-related 2023 bills filed in Virginia, including HB 1396, filed by Del. Marie March (R-Floyd), which would allow all Virginians, regardless of income or previous schooling, to be eligible for the ESA program. March’s bill has the support of Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

SB 823, sponsored by Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), would make families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line eligible for tax-credit scholarships.

HB 1371, filed by Del. Phillip Scott (R-Spotsylvania), is a “universal school choice” bill without income-based restrictions. It would make any Virginia child enrolled in a public school eligible.

— Missouri: Missouri lawmakers in 2021 created its MOScholars school choice program that is limited to families who live in a county or city with a population of at least 30,000. The program was initially capped at $25 million—enough to cover 3,450 students.

Several 2023 proposals seek to expand MOScholars, including SB 360, filed by Sen. Andrew Koenig (R-Manchester), which would make more students eligible by lowering income restrictions.

Rep. Josh Hurlbert (R-Smithville) has filed a passel of school choice-related bills, including HB 243, which is similar to SB 360; HB 242, which would make all students eligible for MOScholars; and HB 241, which would require school districts allow homeschooled students to participate in activities and sports.

SB 81, sponsored by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold) would create a refundable tax credit covering all eligible homeschooling expenses, while SB 226 sponsored by Sen. Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon) would create a refundable tax credit for 100 percent of tuition parents pay for private school or a public school outside their home district.

SB 5, also introduced by Koenig, and HB 253, sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt (R-Sedalia) would allow students to transfer to other public schools within and outside their school districts. School districts can opt out of the program or limit the percentage of students who could transfer.

— Iowa: Iowa House Republican leaders are pushing Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed school choice expansion that would allocate parents $7,600 per student each school year. Her proposal would boost students participating in the state’s school choice program from 33,000 to 38,000 students in its first year, she maintains.

Critics such as Common Good Iowa say the only Iowa families that will benefit from Reynolds’ school choice plan are those who already have a choice. Of the state’s 99 counties, there aren’t any private schools in 41 and only one in another 23 counties. Opponents argue rural taxpayers without school choice will be subsidizing school choice for families in more suburban and urban areas under Reynold’s proposal.

Common Good and other opponents say the $340 million Reynolds’ school choice expansion when fully implemented would consume 9 percent of the state’s education budget but benefit only about 1 percent of the Iowa’s approximately 500,000 K-12 students.

— Montana: Sen. Theresa Manzella (R-Hamilton), who leads the Montana Freedom Caucus, said conservative priorities in 2023 include election integrity, parental rights, returning $2 billion in “surplus money” to taxpayers, judiciary reform, and promoting school choice.

— Kentucky: Lawmakers in 2021 adopted the “Education Opportunity Act,” Kentucky’s first school choice program, but it remains in limbo after the state’s Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in December 2022.

Under the approved program, state taxpayers could donate to account-granting organizations (AGOs) and receive a “near dollar-for-dollar tax credit against their income taxes.”

The donations would be funneled by AGOs into individual eligible student’s Education Opportunity Accounts (EOAs), which are essentially the same as ESAs, and could be used for various education-related expenses, including private school tuition.

The 2021 bill passed the House by one vote and was vetoed by Democrat Gov. Andy Beshear. Both chambers in the General Assembly subsequently overrode the veto in two-thirds votes to adopt the “Education Opportunity Act.”

Under the Act, students from families earning no more than 175 percent of federal poverty line—$85,800 for a family of four in 2020-21—are eligible to receive up to $4,700 in their EOAs for school expenses, including private school tuition.

The legislation was to go into effect June 29, 2021, but was legally challenged. A lower court found the legislation violated the Kentucky Constitution. Proponents appealed to the state Supreme Court, which in December upheld the lower court ruling.

EdChoice Kentucky President Andrew Vandiver told The Epoch Times that the “Kentucky Supreme Court does not set educational policy” and expects the legislature to produce proposals to remedy the court’s ruling.

Indeed, at least four proposed 2023 bills addressing school choice await Kentucky lawmakers when they convene Feb. 7 in Frankfurt.

— Florida: Florida already has the largest enrollment in school choice programs than any state in the nation but could see a dramatic expansion in voucher and tax-credit scholarships if HB 1 filed by Rep. Kaylee Tuck (R-Lake Placid) is adopted.

HB 1 would remove nearly all eligibility requirements in the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship program, now limited to households earning at or below 375 percent of the federal poverty level. The “universal voucher” proposal would make a family of four with an income of more than $104,063 per year eligible for scholarships worth $7,250 to $7,850 per student beginning the 2023-24 school year.

Students from families that earn 185 percent or less of the federal poverty line will retain priority under HB 1, which gets its first hearing Jan. 26 before the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee.

Proponents say lifting the financial restrictions would make 9,399 Florida special needs students on a waiting list for scholarships eligible immediately. The bill would also allow parents who home-school their children to be paid, although HB 1 limits the initial rollout to 10,000 students.

No similar bill has been filed in the Senate. Senate President Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) backs HB 1.

“This historic legislation empowers parents, ensuring they direct the significant funding Florida taxpayers are dedicating to education to the best education program for their child,” Passidomo said in a statement.

“Here in the free State of Florida, we trust parents to make the best decisions for their children. This visionary bill ensures school choice remains a reality for every child in every family across our great state by providing parents the chance to guide how and where the funding for their children’s education is spent.”

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