Well, we may have been thinking too small in dubbing 2021 “The Year of Educational Choice.”
That’s because 2023 is easily lapping it when it comes to scale and scope of expanded education options. Broad access to school choice programs is no longer an “if” for families, but a “When?” and “Where next?”
In 2023, a record 19 states said “yes” to expanding school choice. These states have implemented or are getting ready to implement programs that will likely enroll millions of students. The majority of this year’s school choice expansions, including open enrollment in traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online learning, and homeschooling – are designed to be available to all or almost all students.
What spurred these changes? Without question, the education disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic was an inflection point for giving families more control over where their children attend school, but the modern day school choice movement has been consistently gaining steam for more than 30 years.
Ever since the introduction of the first public charter schools in Minnesota in 1991 and the establishment of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Scholarship in neighboring Wisconsin, school choice, in all its forms, has been transforming the lives of children. Over the last three decades, broad coalitions of families, educators, and state leaders have worked hard to expand education options. The contributions of untold numbers of people have made the expansions we’ve seen in the last three years possible.
So, where does that leave us now? School choice programs have expanded significantly in recent years, making them more accessible to a wider group of people. Specifically:
- Many states now offer education savings accounts (ESAs) which are designed for increased flexibility. Families can use state funds for a variety of learning-related expenses, such as private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, online classes, therapy, or supplies.
- States are renewing their focus on open enrollment and true accessibility, which involves eliminating tuition fees for families who transfer between traditional public schools. Take Montana, for instance, which passed a bills to standardize open enrollment in public schools across the state by 2024, making it easier (and guaranteeing it’s free) for families to choose the best public school fit for their child.
- Montana also opened the door to charter schools this year, making it one of several states seeking to strengthen its charter school options.
- Online learning, provided by permanent schools that in many cases predate the pandemic, remains an important piece of the puzzle, with several states codifying statewide access to district-run online programs.
- Homeschooling is also undergoing major changes, particularly in how families can combine it with other forms of school choice, including participating in education savings account programs, part time public schooling options, and online learning.
- While states have not expressly expanded magnet school options over the past several years, they still serve millions of students across the country.
But, before we get into the nitty gritty of 2023, let’s first explore the school choice developments from the last two years.
Setting the Stage: 2021 and 2022 Education Options Evolve
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools faced numerous challenges, leading to remote learning for many students. Consequently, parents took a more active role in their children’s education and demanded more options. Last year, several states implemented new laws aimed at improving education for families. Some of these laws enable parents to keep track of their children’s education, while others establish alternative schools that may better suit some students. In essence, these laws prioritize the needs of parents and students.
With education savings account programs (ESAs), parents have the ability to utilize their children’s state education funds for various educational purposes. These programs establish individual accounts that hold a child’s state education dollars.
Enacted in 2021 and launched in 2022, West Virginia’s ESA program, the Hope Scholarship, was one of the first of its kind. This program allowed families to use the money that would have been spent on their child’s public school education for other educational expenses. These expenses include private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, and resources for homeschooling. Today, the program provides around $4,488 per child.
Following in West Virginia’s footsteps in 2022 Arizona expanded and reformed its ESA program, making it the most robust private school choice program in the nation, and Tennessee expanded its ESA serving children with disabilities.
Additionally, in 2022, a number of states introduced or expanded tax credit scholarship programs. These programs offered donors a tax credit when they contributed to organizations that provide scholarships to students, enabling them to attend the school of their choice. In 2022, Georgia doubled the funding cap on its scholarship program, paving the way for thousands of additional children to receive scholarships. South Dakota expanded eligibility for its scholarship program to students in foster care, as well as increasing the total available tax credits. And Alabama signed into law key improvements to the state’s tax-credit scholarship, increasing the tax credit amount a taxpayer might claim.
Charter schools are public schools that operate independently, do not charge tuition, and are open to all students. They work with a charter school authorizer, which can be a nonprofit organization, company, government agency, or university. Charter schools provide families with another free education option within the public school system, but they are more free to innovate than traditional public schools.
In 2022, many states began to expand access to charter school and charter school resources. Kentucky, for instance, passed a bill to provide a funding mechanism for public charter schools and establish a pilot program. Missouri, meanwhile, took strides to provide more equitable funding for charter school students. Georgia and New Mexico improved funding for charter school facilities, and Idaho updated its laws on certifications for charter school teachers. West Virginia’s first ever public charter school opened their doors in 2022.
For more information, check out our ultimate guide on all things charter schools.
The continued growth and increased funding of magnet schools is a promising sign for the education system. Magnet Schools of America estimates that 4,000 magnet schools serving 3.5 million students. It’s clear that these specialized institutions are playing an important role in shaping the future of education. The recent award of over $100 million in funding by the U.S. Department of Education in 2022 is a testament to the value of magnet schools and the impact they have on the lives of students.
Check out our ultimate guide on magnet schools to get a better idea of recent changes.
The pandemic undoubtedly accelerated the shift towards online learning, as schools across the nation have transitioned to virtual classrooms and man families experienced online learning for the first time. Since then, as more families have discovered that online learning’s flexibility is the best choice for them, states have taken new steps to improve access to online learning. In 2022, for instance, Missouri passed a bill to streamline the application process for virtual schooling, addressing delays that many Missouri families faced trying to choose online learning in their state. And in West Virginia, two new statewide virtual charter schools opened, significantly expanding families’ online choices.
Homeschooling exploded in popularity during the pandemic, and many families have decided to stick with this option, with about 3.1 million students homeschooling in 2022. Homeschooling is changing quite a bit, with more families wanting to blend the freedom and flexibility of home education with co-ops, online instruction, or even microschooling. As this type of school choice evolves, we’re tracking things in our ultimate guide to homeschooling as well as our ultimate guide to microschooling and mix-and-match learning.
Open enrollment is a crucial type of public school choice. It involves the option for parents to send their children to schools outside of their district, depending on whether their state allows it.
In 2021 and 2022, numerous schools across the country expanded their open enrollment policies. Sometimes these expansions were statewide; for example, Kansas passed a law to significantly increase access to traditional public school transfers by 2024. Where open enrollment has been streamlined and strengthened, it has allowed more families to have a wider range of options when selecting a school for their children from the approximately 90,000 traditional public schools available nationwide. Overall the expansion of open enrollment policies gave parents the freedom to choose the best fit for their family.
School choice had significant growth in 2022, but 2023 is proving to be even more transformative. So, what changes can we expect?
What’s new in 2023?
In 2023, lawmakers and educators around the country heard the acronym ‘ESA’ more than ever before.
There are currently 10 states with active ESA programs nationwide with 3 more being launched in 2024. Additionally, Missouri has launched a unique tax-credit and ESA hybrid for private schools statewide. ESA’s allow parents to use allocated funds to pay for school tuition and fees, textbooks, tutoring and special therapies, as well as other approved expenses. This means that a child’s education can be tailored to their specific needs. Families who participate in ESAs have the freedom to select the best education for their children from a variety of providers.
More than a decade since West Virginia adopted the nation’s first education savings account program, there’s been a decisive shift towards policies with expansive eligibility. With 2023 as the year of all in on school choice, eight states now have programs that nearly all students can participate in. Passing policies is only the first step in successful ESAs. To ensure the success of these programs, families, educators, and community leaders must collaborate and work together.
Scholarship tax credit programs give families greater access to high-quality private schools by providing incentives to assist in expanding educational opportunities.
Scholarship tax credit programs create new pools of funding so that children can receive scholarships to attend the private schools of their parent’s choice. Corporations and individuals make private donations to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to eligible children. In return, the corporations and individuals receive a state income tax credit. Currently, 22 states have tax-credit scholarship programs either active or launching soon.
Parents are given the opportunity to choose a private school for their children by using public funding set aside for their education through vouchers. This program allows funds that would normally be used by a school district to be given to a family in the form of a voucher. This voucher can then be used to pay for either partial or full tuition for their child’s private school education, regardless of whether the school is religious or non-religious.
Currently,14 states and Washington D.C. provide vouchers for this purpose. This year we saw dramatic increases to Ohio and Indiana’s voucher programs, which are now universally accessible, as well the conversion of Florida’s Empowerment Scholarship Educational Opportunity Program into a more flexible ESA. Meanwhile, Wisconsin significantly increased the voucher amount for its Parental Choice Program.
In 2023, charter school expansion is set to continue in multiple states, including Montana (which, in a historic move, passed two new charter school laws), New York (which is allowing charter school operators to open up to 14 “zombie” charters in New York City as well as eight outside the city), and West Virginia (which has established a charter school stimulus fund). Across the country, many states — including Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin — have taken steps to close funding gaps between charter schools and district schools, ensuring all families receive adequate school funding. The year is only halfway through, but the charter school sector is already proving its continued dynamism and value for families.
Many families are finding online learning to be an easier and more accessible option in light of recent global events. Additionally, individuals who are eager to expand their knowledge are also turning to online platforms as a convenient and flexible way to learn.
More and more families are adopting a combination of homeschooling and online or public school classes. Another popular approach is a hybrid model or mix-and-match learning model, where students attend a physical school for a portion of the week and continue online learning for the remaining days.
As families continue to turn to online learning, states are continuing shore up the infrastructure around them. As just one example, Montana clarified the mission and rules of the Montana Digital Academy this year, making it easier for families to choose.
While down from the fast acceleration during COVID, homeschool numbers remain higher than pre-pandemic. Homeschool enrollment has seen a great improvement climbing to 3.1 million students currently enrolled. That is 1 million more than the previous year.
Additionally, several recent developments have made it easier for homeschoolers to participate in various educational programs and opportunities across different states. In Florida, homeschoolers can now participate in the state’s new ESA program. Kansas has also made it easier for homeschool students to participate in public school activities. Oklahoma’s new tax credit act is also open to homeschoolers, while Montana has made it easier for them to participate in public school part-time. Vermont has reduced regulation for homeschoolers, and Utah’s upcoming ESA (expected in 2024) will also be open to them. Additionally, Wyoming has expanded the definition of homeschooling.
In recent times, there has been a growing trend of states and families opting for part-time learning to customize education. It has become more common for families to combine homeschooling with online or public school courses, which is known as mix-and-match learning. This approach is gaining popularity, and families are becoming increasingly comfortable with it.
Many states, such as West Virginia, Montana, and Idaho are emulating Kansas’ example by broadening their open enrollment policies. This aims to grant more families greater entry to public schools and a greater range of options to select from. As of 2023, roughly 90,000 traditional public schools are available throughout the United States. Over 80% of parents express a preference for allowing their children to transfer to another public school within their school district.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a significant shift in how families approach education. While microschools have existed for some time, there has been a sudden surge in interest due to the pandemic. Families are now seeking educational options that provide flexibility, customization, and a sense of community, which may not be available in traditional public schools.
Those who choose microschooling may be legally classified as homeschoolers or private schoolers, but they all share an innovative mindset. Additionally, many families are combining various forms of education, such as enrolling in public school classes part-time, online classes, or apprenticeship programs. This is commonly known as mix-and-match learning.
As a result, over 1 million families are now part of “microschooling” groups, where they can mix-and-match their learning experiences to suit their needs and preferences.
Check out our ultimate guide to microschools and mix-and-match learning to learn more.
Expansions by State
In May, the state of Alabama passed two education bills While Alabama didn’t pass an ESA, the state expanded eligibility for the Alabama Accountability Act and increased the possible amount for tax-credit scholarships. Alabama also revised state governance of charter schools to promote charter growth.
Arkansas recently passed a significant education bill called the LEARNS Act, which aims to provide many children with new learning opportunities. The bill includes the creation of the Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program, which will be available to all K-12 students in Arkansas by 2025, regardless of where they live or their family’s income level. This program will bring positive changes to education in Arkansas and allow more children to access quality education.
Under the LEARNS Act, families are granted the ability to utilize Education Freedom Accounts, which can be used to cover school-related expenses, including tuition and textbooks. The account is financed by 90% of state education funding, equating to approximately $6,600 per student per year. As eligibility gradually expands over a three-year period, all students will become eligible to access the account by the culmination of the third year.
Additionally, the LEARNS Act has removed restrictions on the number of students who can transfer to traditional public schools and the number of charter schools that nonprofit organizations can establish in the state. As a result, there are now more education options and increased accessibility to open enrollment throughout the state, significantly impacting school choice.
Florida has recently enhanced its educational choices for families by transforming the existing Family Empowerment Scholarship Educational Opportunity Voucher Program and Florida Tax Credit Program into ESA programs. These educational programs are now open to all children statewide who desire to attend a non-public school. By participating in these programs, families can receive approximately $8,000 in education funds for their child, which can be utilized for approved education expenses such as private school tuition, homeschool curricula, digital learning materials, or an approved course at a local public school. Low-income families are given first priority in these programs. Moreover, an online platform is available for families to manage their child’s education funds efficiently.
Check out deep dive blog on Florida’s ESA program.
Idahoan families who are experiencing financial difficulties can still avail themselves of microgrant funding under the Empowering Parents Program in the upcoming academic year of 2023-2024. This is made possible through the recent passing of a bill that seeks to continue the program’s goal of providing families access to educational materials, tutoring services, and therapeutic interventions. Furthermore, Idaho has expanded its open enrollment policies by eliminating the need for transfer students to reapply annually. Families are not required to submit a new application for their chosen public school after two years. However, they must still apply in the first year and inform the school of their attendance plans in the second year.
The new budget in Indiana has widened the income eligibility criteria for various scholarship programs, including Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program, the School Scholarship Tax Credit, and the Education Scholarship Account Program. As a result, 97% of Hoosier students are now able to apply for private school scholarships. Additionally, new bills have been passed to increase funding for public schools, remove textbook fees for families, allocate more funds towards charter schools, and introduce flexible Career Scholarship Accounts for eligible students to use towards work-based learning or apprenticeships.
Iowa’s ESA Program, established by the Students First Act, permits parents to receive their child’s education funding – approximately $7,598 – in an online account if they choose to enroll their child in a participating private school. These funds can be used for approved educational expenses. The new ESA will be introduced over three years, beginning in 2023-2024. All new kindergarteners and current public school students are eligible to apply for the program, regardless of income. Additionally, students who attended private school in the 2022-2023 school year may apply if their family income does not exceed 300% of the federal poverty level. This means that around 94% of children in the state can avail of this program this school year.
Recently, a bill was passed in Kansas with the aim of making education more accessible for families in need. The bill raises the income eligibility for the state’s tax-credit scholarship, which now allows families earning up to 250% of the federal poverty level (about $75,000 a year for a family of four) to apply. The bill also increases the tax credit for contributions, which makes it easier for people to donate to the scholarship fund. Another significant change is that private school and homeschool students are now permitted to participate in public school activities, including sports teams and debate programs.
This year, Louisiana passed a bill to increase its private school tuition tax credit from $5,000 to $6,000 per student per year. This new change goes into effect in 2024. It’s the first time the credit has increased since its creation in 2008 and is a positive step toward making private school choice more accessible and affordable for all families.
Montana made many legislative changes this year, some with immediate impact and some going into effect next school year. Here’s a few highlights:
Public school: A new bill, which goes into effect for the 2024-2025 school year, standardizes open enrollment in public schools across the state, making it easier (and guaranteeing its free) for families to choose the best public school fit for their child. The cap on the Innovative Education Program expanded from $2 million to $5 million. Lawmakers also increased the amount of Advanced Opportunities funding that districts can qualify for.
Charter school: Montana became the 46th state in the country to pass a charter school law. Two different bills were signed authorizing charter arrangements. One bill, the Community Choice Schools Act, sets up a process where new charter schools can be approved by local charter boards and a state charter commission. The other bill, the Public Charter Schools Act, allows for charter schools to be approved by local school boards.
Private school: First, the cap on Montana’s tax credit scholarship program has more than doubled, increasing from $2 million to $5 million. Second, the Students with Special Needs Opportunity Act will launch in 2024, allowing families of children with disabilities to apply for ESAs worth about $6,800. Third, nonpublic students statewide can enroll part-time in public schools.
Homeschooling: Homeschool students statewide can enroll part-time in public schools. This makes it easier for families to blend home and public education.
Online learning: Two new bills signed into law expand families’ access to online learning. The bills make several tweaks to Montana Digital Academy’s mission and set-up. For example, they clarify the definition of remote instruction, broaden the stated mission of the academy, and allow the academy to use instructors who have licenses and endorsements from out of state. (Note that Montana Digital Academy is designed to offer supplementary online courses in partnership with local districts; it’s not a full-time or stand-alone online school.)
Nebraska recently passed a new law called the Opportunity Scholarship Act. This law aims to provide financial assistance to students who require help in paying for their education. A special fund of $100 million has been set up to offer scholarships to students from lower-income families, those with special needs, those who experience bullying, those from military families, those in foster care, and those who are not able to attend their preferred public school. Starting in 2024, these scholarships will average around $9,200.
New Hampshire has increased the income limit for families of four to qualify for the state’s ESA program, making it easier to access the program’s benefits. Now, families earning up to 350 percent of the federal poverty level (difference of $9,000 for a two-person household) can participate. This change will enable more families to benefit from the program.
After a drawn-out budget debate, New York has taken some steps to lifting its cap on the number of public charter schools allowed in the state. Now, charter school operators may open up to 14 “zombie” charters in New York City, as well as up to eight elsewhere in the state. This move is a major step towards expanding the scope of education opportunities for students and their families, which will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the state’s education system.
Ohio’s new budget expands traditional public, public charter, and private school options for families. A few highlights include:
- Updates to the state’s school funding formula will result in increased funding for public education over the next two years. The budget also includes special investments in career technical education, new teacher salaries, and scholarships for high-performing high school students who choose to attend in-state colleges.
- The budget provides an extra $650 per pupil in both 2024 and 2025 for brick and mortar charter schools, and provides additional funding for high-performing charter schools.
- Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program is expanding to universal eligibility. Plus, Ohio’s Autism Scholarship is being updated to be available to any child diagnosed with autism, and the award amount for the Jon Peterson Scholarship for students with special needs is increasing.
These measures are a positive step towards ensuring that all students have access to quality education, regardless of their financial situations.
Families who participate in the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act can receive a refundable tax credit ranging from $5,000 to $7,500 per student for eligible learning expenses. The program follows a tiered approach, providing higher funds to students with greater needs. Even homeschoolers are eligible to participate and can receive a tax credit of up to $1,000 for qualified expenses per student.
Oklahoma also approved the nation’s first religious charter school, a Catholic online school.
South Carolina plans to launch an ESA program in the 2024-2025 academic year. This program will phase in over three years and provide eligible low-income students with $6,000 scholarships. To qualify for the program, students must come from families that earn less than twice the federal poverty guidelines. In its inaugural year, the scholarship will be available to a maximum of 5,000 students who can use it to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, technology, or attending a public school outside their district. Eligibility requirements state that a student must have attended public school the previous year or be starting kindergarten for the first time.
South Carolina also passed a law to make public school enrollment easier for military families.
More families in Tennessee now have the opportunity to participate in the ESA Pilot Program, which allows them to select a private school for their children instead of the assigned public school. Previously, the program was only available to students zoned to Shelby County or Metro Nashville in two regions, but now students zoned to Hamilton County (which includes the Chattanooga area) can apply as well. This is a welcome development for many families, as the county has a large school district with many students.
Starting in 2024, there will be a new scholarship program in Utah called the Utah Fits All Scholarship. Families who choose to send their children to private schools or homeschool them can apply for this program and receive up to $8,000 to help pay for education. This scholarship is available to any family in Utah, regardless of income or where they live. Even if a student attends public school part-time, they can still receive some funding for nonpublic learning. However, there is a limit of 5,312 students who can participate in the program at first. If more people apply than can be accepted, families with low incomes will be given priority.
Recently, West Virginia enacted several new laws to benefit Hope Scholarship students and other non-traditional learners who want to participate in sports at their local public schools. Additionally, a Charter Schools Stimulus Fund was established to encourage the growth of charter schools. Another law was passed to expand public school open enrollment by requiring county boards to establish policies and prohibiting schools from charging tuition for transfer students. There are just a few situations in which a transfer request may be denied, such as when there is lack of capacity in the student’s grade level, or when the student has previously been expelled.
The state of Wisconsin has recently ramped up its financial assistance for students who attend voucher schools and charter schools. This support is aimed at ensuring that all students have access to quality education, regardless of their background or financial situation. By increasing funding for these alternative education options, Wisconsin is working to create a more equitable and inclusive educational system that meets the needs of all students.
The pandemic has led to a rise in school choice popularity, which is still ongoing. Many parents are looking for opportunities to choose a learning environment that aligns with their family’s values and offers their children the best chance of success. It’s crucial for every student to receive a challenging, effective, and motivating education. Since each child has unique talents, interests, and challenges, having a range of educational options is necessary. School choice ensures that every student can find a learning environment that inspires them to feel successful and content.
With 19 states implementing or preparing to implement school choice programs, millions of students will have access to a diverse range of educational opportunities, from traditional public schools to homeschooling. As we move forward, it is important to continue advocating for the expansion of education options and to ensure that all students have access to quality education.
This is just the start of a significant transformation in education.