The Bottom Line School Choice Takes State Houses by Storm in 2023 Legislative SessionsOriginally published at The Federalist
Wins keep pouring in for school choice in red states. Currently, seven states have enacted universal or near-universal school choice into law: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Utah, and West Virginia.
Arizona became the frontrunner in 2022 by passing the legislation under Governor Doug Ducey, which made all students eligible in the first year. Some of the other states’ universal school choice laws include multi-year roll-out phases.
The momentum is continuing in 2023, with historical achievements advancing school choice in several other red states.
Indiana passed a budget this session that will expand eligibility for the state’s Choice Scholarship program. The program was initially created by former Governor Mitch Daniels in 2011 and was the first school voucher program in the country. The 2023 budget bill increased eligibility from 300% of the federal income requirement for free- and reduced-lunch to 400%, which in hard numbers is approximately $220,000 for a family of four.
Other additional prior requirements were also removed. While not quite universal, only about 3.5% of Indiana families won’t be eligible under the newly expanded income allowance. The bill also included an expansion of the existing tax-credit scholarship by removing the income eligibility limit completely.
But Indiana’s school choice efforts didn’t stop there. The budget bill additionally supports charter schools by allowing them to receive increased funding from local taxes in certain counties. In addition, it created the Career Scholarship Account, providing students with apprenticeships or similar work-learning programs, with $5,000 to allocate toward their schooling.
Governor Henry McMaster signed a school choice bill into law on May 4. South Carolina’s Education Scholarship Trust Fund program will provide low- and middle-income families with $6,000 to allocate toward the education avenue of their choice for each of their children. That can include private school tuition, online schools, standardized tests, tutoring, and textbooks.
While the program is capped at 5,000 students the first year and to household incomes that do not exceed 200% of the state’s poverty threshold, by year three it will reach 15,000 students. At that point, the eligibility jumps to 400% of the poverty line.
McMasters is excited about what this new legislation will do for the families of the Palmetto State. Upon signing the bill, he remarked, “Everything in this new law works and will work well — work extremely well — for the people of South Carolina. This goes right to the heart of that educational strength.” Recognizing the broader impact of the legislation, he noted that “among the benefits are not just preparing our people to live happy, strong, healthy, meaningful lives — the impact on our economic growth will be enormous.”
Montana’s new education savings account (ESA) bill focuses on students with special needs. The Special Needs Equal Opportunity Act will provide families of students with special needs $5,000-$8,000 annually for educational expenses. Governor Greg Gianforte is expected to sign the bill, and he commented, “Every parent knows each child is unique. Let’s ensure each child’s education best meets his or her individual needs.”
Gianforte signaled in his second State of the State Address earlier this year that more far-reaching school choice reforms may be coming in the Treasure State:
Too often throughout our country, we’ve seen education bureaucrats fighting to keep parents out of their kid’s education. Let’s be clear — government should never stand between parents and their kid’s education. Let’s empower Montana parents to choose what’s best for their family and their kids.Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, State of the State Address
North Carolina will become the first state without a Republican trifecta to pass a massive school bill. With Republicans holding a veto-proof majority in both chambers, Democrat Governor Roy Cooper won’t be able to stop the bill from becoming law as he wishes.
Once passed, the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which began in 2014, will see its biggest expansion. Starting next year, there will be no income level eligibility cap so any student in North Carolina can apply to participate. A sliding scale will determine the amount awarded based on family income. Thus, lower-income families will receive a higher level of funding than others. The private school voucher amount will range from $3,246 to $7,213 per student for the year, then adjust annually based on state spending per public school student.
Governor Kevin Stitt has been working to advance education freedom for families in the Sooner State. As outlined in his 2023 State of the State Address, Governor Stitt explained: “Every child deserves a quality education that fits their unique needs, regardless of economic status or background. Let’s fund students, not systems.”
On May 2, Stitt celebrated the House of Representatives passing the Senate’s version of the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act on a 61-31 vote. But House Speaker Charles McCall opted instead to “capture” it while the legislature seeks to get an agreement on a public education funding plan.
If and when the bill makes it to Governor Stitt, it would provide families in households earning under $75,000 annually with $7,500 per student “for parents who choose to send their child to a private or charter school outside of their zip code-assigned public school.” The amount incrementally decreases based on household income, with households earning over $250,000 annually eligible for $5,000 per student per year.
Efforts in Other States
Don’t count other red states out in the future. Strong efforts are underway in multiple states including Nebraska and New Hampshire.
While Texas school choice took a blow on May 4 when the House voted 86-52 to amend the budget to ban state funding for “school vouchers or similar programs,” the Lone Star State should not be counted out. Despite the vote count not looking close, the 86 votes were less than for other amendments (e.g., a similar amendment to the House budget earned 115 votes). The vote count reflects the solid progress Texas has made this session toward winning on the issue in the future.
One thing is certain. Governor Greg Abbott isn’t about to give up when it comes to granting educational freedom to Texas families. On a hopeful note, the same day the House passed the school voucher ban, the Senate approved an ESA bill that would give parents up to $8,000 per student each year for educational expenses.
The tide is turning. Universal school choice is now a reality in several U.S. states, and more are on the way. Let’s keep this juggernaut rolling to grant more American families the ability to escape from public schools that are failing their children.