Like the income tax-cutting legislation that has swept the country in recent years, with income tax relief enacted in nearly half the states over the past two years, expansion of school choice is another policy trend that has strengthened since 2020 and is continuing apace into 2023. Most recently, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-Ark.) saw her education reform package, which includes universal education savings accounts (ESAs), pass out of the Arkansas Senate on February 23.
Governor Sanders’ education reform proposal, introduced as Senate Bill 294, would provide the parents of every Arkansas child with an ESA annually infused with $6,000, funds that can used attend the private or public school best suited for their needs. ESA values will grow over time, as the annual amount is set at 90% of public school per pupil spending for the previous education year.
“It is hard to overstate the transformational impact Governor Sanders’ education plan will have on Arkansas students and parents. It is the biggest, boldest conservative education reform in the country,” said Nick Stehle, vice president of communications at the Foundation for Government Accountability. “Governor Sanders’ plan to unleash education freedom will make Arkansas a national model.”
Arkansas isn’t the first state where legislation to expand school choice has passed this year and it is unlikely to be the last. That’s because bills to create or expand access to ESA programs are pending in other state legislatures, including in some of the most populous states.
“Dozens of states have found a solution by empowering parents through education savings accounts, giving families part of their tax dollars back to be used for educational tuition, therapies, tutoring, and more,” writes Jason Edmonds, policy analyst at the Beacon Center of Tennessee, one of the first states to create an ESA program. “Just this year, Iowa and Utah have created statewide ESA programs, with others like Florida and Texas looking to do the same.”
Just because a state is red and has a legislature with large Republican majorities does not mean that passage of school choice-expanding legislation is a sure thing, as Wyoming is now demonstrating. The Wyoming Senate passed a bill on February 2 that would create a universal ESA program like the one that was launched in Arizona last year by former Governor Doug Ducey (R) and is now being advanced by Governor Sanders and her counterparts in other states.
The Wyoming Senate-approved ESA bill has 33 cosponsors in the House of Representatives, which represents a majority of that chamber. Yet, despite Senate passage and support from most House members, Wyoming’s universal ESA bill is being held up by one politician, Wyoming House Speaker Albert Sommers (R). U.S. Senator Harriet Hageman (R) weighed in on this state legislative debate over the weekend, sending a February 25 tweet urging Speaker Sommers and other state lawmakers in Cheyenne to pass the universal ESA bill that Sommers is holding up.
Many Hope 2023 Will Be The Year Universal School Choice Comes To Texas
There is some school choice in Texas, notes EdChoice, but it is limited to “charter schools, magnet schools, home schooling and inter-district and intra-district public school choice via open enrollment. Texas does not have a private school choice program.” That could change in 2023.
Like his counterpart in Arkansas, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) has made expansion of school choice a top 2023 priority. Governor Abbott made it clear early in the year that school choice would be high on his agenda and that his goal is to provide parents and children across Texas with universal access to ESAs.
“Parents should not be helpless, they should be able to choose the education option that is best for their child,” Governor Abbott said at a January 31 event in Corpus Christi. “The way to do that is with ESAs — Education Savings Accounts. We’ve seen them work in other states.”
The effort to provide greater school choice in Texas, however, must overcome bipartisan opposition if it is to be successful. That’s because in Texas, as in other states, many Republican legislators who represent rural districts have come to believe that ESAs and other school choice-expanding programs do not benefit their constituents like they do those who live in urban and suburban districts. Yet advocates for greater school choice point to experience and data that shows rural families benefit from reforms that increase choice in education.
“Based on the experience of Florida, rural communities may be able to have their cake and eat it too,” says Shaka Mitchell, senior fellow at the American Federation for Children. “The number of rural students using private choice programs roughly tripled over the past decade, but that still represents only about 7% of rural students. This means rural schools will remain community hubs while still affording children who would benefit from other options a meaningful choice.”
School choice programs and the number of families with access to them has shot up in recent years. “In 2021 alone, 19 states created new programs or expanded existing ones—far more than any previous year,” writes Neil McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.
“By one estimate, the 2021 expansion opened 1.6 million new choice slots, not including changes to North Carolina’s ESA enacted late in the year,” McCluskey added. “Arizona’s 2022 universal expansion adds about 1 million more new slots, bringing the total to 2.6 million. To put that in perspective, in the 2020–21 school year, 660,085 students were using private choice programs. Add those to potential new ones, and the total could increase to almost 3.3 million.”
Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, and Texas aren’t the only states where parents and children are poised to have more education options moving forward. School choice-expanding reforms with decent odds for passage are still pending in a number of states. Other places where school choice legislation stands a good chance of enactment in 2023 include Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio, and Nevada.