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  • Jan 26 2018

The 2018 EdChoice Yearbook Superlatives

The EdChoice team debated and dubbed this year’s yearbook superlatives, including most likely to succeed in 2018.

We’re back again in the new year with EdChoice’s 2018 yearbook superlatives. We got together to vote on America’s educational choice programs, and here are our winners and honorable mentions for categories, such as Most Empowering, Biggest Setback and Most Likely to Succeed in 2018. Scroll down to find out what we picked.

Want a glimpse behind the scenes of our deliberations? Listen to our podcast below. In it, EdChoice’s VP of Communications Jennifer Wagner, VP of Legal Affairs Leslie Hiner, Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartier and Research Assistant Michael Shaw discuss how we examine nominees from all angles and, ultimately, how we decide our winners.

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Most Empowering

Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts

Our team weighed purchasing power, funding stream stability and the ability of parents to use their funds flexibly to determine the educational choice program that empowers families the most.

It’s worth noting that Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts would be the most empowering program in America, but because of lingering funding issues post-litigation, the program is still—more than two years later—not serving families. So this year, our team chose to elect the Most Empowering program out of operating programs that are currently helping families.

Arizona’s education savings accounts (ESAs), the aptly named Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, took home the prize this year. That said, Indiana’s school vouchers and Florida’s tax-credit scholarships were also in the running and deserve mention as very empowering programs, especially when considering how many students they currently serve.

To be “empowering,” a program must provide families with enough funding to afford the educational options their children need, and that funding must be something parents can count on without fear that it may not be approved or available the following year. But this year, we felt programs that empower families with the flexibility to customize an education for their child deserve more weight than programs that simply serve a lot of students. In our eyes (and the eyes of the parents on our team), more options = more power, and that is what gave an ESA program the edge.

How did Arizona beat out other states with operating ESA programs? Arizona’s program currently has a higher student eligibility rate than any other ESA program.

Most Well-Rounded Policy

Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts

We define a well-rounded program by examining three aspects: eligibility, guaranteed funding and flexibility.

On the books, Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts program wins this category, but because it still lacks a funding stream after the Nevada Supreme Court’s 2017 decision, Arizona’s education savings account program comes home with the prize.

  • As an ESA, it is flexible for parents.
  • Its funding stream is written into the state’s education funding formula.
  • And 22 percent of Arizona students are eligible—nearly 98 percent if the expansion enacted this year weathers the opposition.

Most Popular

Arkansas Succeed Scholarship Program & Florida Gardiner Scholarship Program

We define the Most Popular program not by sheer student participation numbers, but rather by biggest percentage growth in participation over the past year. This year, the winner is Arkansas’s Succeed Scholarship Program, a voucher for students with special needs and students in foster care who are either former public school students or children of active-duty military members. This program grew by 557 percent, or from 23 to 151 students.

Because those numbers are fairly small, we thought it only fair to highlight the program with the largest net increase in participation as well: Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program, an ESA for students with special needs. That program grew by 3,068 students last year.

Most Improved

Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Program

Like Most Popular, Most Improved is a numbers game. We base the winner of this category on the program with the biggest student eligibility expansion in the past year.

This year, Arizona’s education savings account program wins. The state’s legislature expanded the program from 22 percent eligibility to 98 percent eligibility (by the year 2020). That was the largest jump (76 percent) of any other program, but there’s still a rather large hurdle Arizona’s ESAs must overcome.

The new expansion was slated to go into effect Aug. 9, 2017. However, that did not happen because Save Our Schools Arizona—a group that opposes opening educational opportunities to kids in need—submitted enough signatures to refer the expansion to the 2018 ballot. As it stands now, the future of this expansion depends on a public vote in 2018.

Other eligibility expansions last year include:

Biggest Setback

Douglas County, Colorado’s Voucher Program Repeal

Our Vice President of Legal Affairs Leslie Hiner chronicled the events that led to the repeal of Douglas County, Colorado’s school voucher program in 2017 on our blog here. She also had this to say in EdChoice’s 2018 ABCs of School Choice:

“Years of intense political acrimony, and grueling litigation that prevented families from being able to access vouchers for their children for more than the first few months of the program in 2011, finally led to the collapse of the Douglas County Choice Scholarship Program. After multiple successive and bitter local school board elections, foes of educational freedom finally seated a majority on the Douglas County school board, and they rescinded the scholarship program at their first opportunity. The following is an update on the legal status of litigation involving the program. The litigation is pending, notwithstanding the actions of the school board, and efforts to adopt vouchers by other school districts in Colorado, or a future Douglas County school board with different members, could be affected by the ultimate outcome of this case.

Click here to learn more about the status of that litigation in our ABCs.

Our team also thought it prudent to mention another major setback that affected more than 10,000 families: the Nevada legislature and Gov. Brian Sandoval’s inability to secure a funding stream for the state’s nearly universal education savings account program.

Most Inspiring

The Town of Croydon and New Hampshire Town Tuitioning

The school board in the Town of Croydon, New Hampshire offered town tuitioning to students who resided in its town. Like many towns in New Hampshire, Croydon does not have a middle school or high school, and its elementary grades are limited. Under New Hampshire law, public schools may send children to a neighboring town’s school or a school that meets the unique needs of its students. Most of Croydon’s students—at this time, 37 children in grades five through 12—attend public school at the neighboring town of Newport. However, five children requested to attend a nearby Montessori school, and the Croydon school board determined that this would, indeed, meet the needs of these children.

In 2015, opponents targeted those five children by suing Croydon’s town tuitioning. Following a hearing on the merits in 2016, the lower court ruled that Croydon did not have the authority to town tuition students to a private school.

An appeal was pending, but what’s amazing is that the New Hampshire state legislature saw that injustice and effectively came to those families’ rescue, clarifying the law Croydon relied on by creating a statewide town tuitioning program. This program requires any New Hampshire district that lacks a public school that offers the grade levels a student needs—which includes Croydon—to pay for that student to attend any school of their choice, whether that’s a nearby town’s public school or a non-religious private school of their choice.

Best New Program

North Carolina’s Personal Education Savings Accounts

North Carolina created the nation’s sixth education savings account program last year, making it the strongest new program of 2017. The program launches in the 2018–19 school year and will give families funds they can use to pay for educational and therapeutic expenses. It’s a great first step to empowering North Carolina families. Check out our EdChoice Expert Feedback section on this page to see how we think this program could be even better.

Other states that created programs include:

Biggest Legal Challenge

Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue

The Georgia General Assembly enacted the Qualified Educational Tax Credit Program in 2008 to expand educational opportunities for K–12 students. The program helped more than 13,500 students attend private schools that fit their needs in 2016.

In Gaddy v. Georgia Department of Revenue, school choice opponents filed a lawsuit to stop the program in April 2014 because some students choose to use their scholarships to pay tuition at faith-based or religiously affiliated institutions. The trial court held that plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the tax-credit scholarship program and that, even if they had standing, their constitutional arguments failed because tax credits are not government funds. Plaintiffs appealed that ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision on June 26, 2017, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected the complaint, ruling that plaintiffs had no standing to sue.

Another notable legal challenge involves multiple lawsuits filed against Florida’s educational choice programs, especially its very large tax-credit scholarship program. Florida Supreme Court judges have ruled favorably or dismissed cases for lack of standing, but one case is still pending as we settle into 2018. Learn more about those cases in our 2018 ABCs of School Choice.

Most Likely to Succeed in 2018

New Hampshire

In our annual superlatives, we define “success” as the creation of a new educational choice program with strong policy design.

The state’s Senate previously passed SB 193, which would create education savings accounts for low-income students, foster students, students with special needs and students assigned to low-performing district schools. Earlier this month, the House passed it as well. The bill is still making its way through the legislative process, but we have high hopes it will reach the desk of Gov. Chris Sununu, who is a fierce supporter of educational choice.

OTHER STATES TO WATCH FOR NEW PROGRAMS IN 2018

Arkansas

Iowa

Kentucky

Mississippi

Ohio

Pennsylvania

South Carolina

West Virginia

 

To see how the EdChoice team voted last year, visit The 2017 EdChoice Yearbook Superlatives.

 

Our Podcast Transcribed

Jennifer: Hello, and welcome to another edition of Ed Choice Chats. I’m your host, our VP of Communications Jennifer Wagner, and this may be our most robust, well-populated EdChoice Chat to date. I am joined today by three of my colleagues here at EdChoice, our Research Assistant Mike Shaw, our Senior Director of State Relations Michael Chartier and our VP of Legal Affairs Leslie Hiner. And we are talking about superlatives.

So, every year we go through all the data, we go through every program in the United States, and we tally up how many people are able to be part of these programs, how many people are taking part in these programs, and we decide who’s the best, who’s the worst, who’s the prettiest, who’s the ugliest … Just kidding.

And Mike Shaw, I would like to start with you talking about that data-collection process, and how we come up with the numbers that we come up with the superlatives from.

Mike: Sure, so this is our ABCs (of School Choice) Superlative podcast, and we’ll also accompany a blog post about how we chose the superlatives, but ultimately, we make our decisions here at EdChoice about data. The ABCs is a large data-collection process. And to figure out which programs and which states were the best of the best, we had to use data to analyze that. So, as far as some of our categories that use data, we had most popular. That’s percent of participation increase year over year. Most improved is a percent of eligibility change year over year. And then, we also use an empowering category, and we use various data categories to weight things as far as what programs give families the most options for their children.

Jennifer: Well, that’s fantastic. It sounds like a large time commitment too. So, we want to thank you, Mike, for putting a lot of sweat equity into putting those numbers together. I know it’s a big lift, so …

But without further delay, our big winner this year looks like Arizona, which came up a winner in three categories: most empowering, most well-rounded, and most improved. And so, Michael, you obviously oversee our state affairs, state relations. Talk about what happened in Arizona this past year.

Michael: So, Arizona this past year passed the largest increase of any school choice program in the country. I mean, over … About 30,000 additional kids were eligible for the program. As long as you spent time in public school, you were eligible to take part in Arizona’s ESA program. It kind of piggybacked off of Nevada’s program in certain ways, and Nevada is near and dear to my heart, so I want to throw out a little bit of love their way. But Nevada served as the model for Arizona’s expansion, so we had to give the most empowered. It allows the most families to have the most well-rounded and customized educational program of any state in the country.

Jennifer: And also, the most improved because they had a good program to start with and it’s gotten even better, but I would be remiss if I didn’t touch briefly with you, Leslie, on the fact that, like Nevada, the expansion in Arizona is currently on hold. Those families are not able to access that ESA program that they should rightfully be able to access. And can you talk a little bit about first of all, how frustrating that is, and also, why that’s happened.

Leslie: Yes. It’s frustrating in Arizona. It must be very frustrating for families who have been waiting for this, waiting for their eligibility for an Education Savings Account only to have opponents of School Choice step up, and they have managed to score a referendum that puts this expansion to a statewide vote in November of this year. Now, the ESAs are very popular in Arizona, but referendums are 100 percent political. It will be a major political battle in Arizona, and that’s just a sad situation for all those kids in Arizona who are waiting for their chance. And it’s just … Well, it’s just not right, it’s not fair, it doesn’t seem like much justice going on there.

However, for me, I think the big rainbow out in Arizona is that several years ago, when the courts said that Arizona couldn’t do vouchers, that’s when they came up with the idea to do Education Savings Accounts, and the courts in Arizona said, “Yeah, that’s great. Go forth and conquer.” And since that time, families and advocates there have been working overtime to help as many families as possible. So, my view is that even though we have this referendum in Arizona, and that’s hard for families, nonetheless, I’m betting that the families will win.

Jennifer: I hope you’re right. And I hate to stay on the negative for just another minute, but since we’re talking about legal affairs and legal setbacks… Our biggest legal setback this past year was, without a doubt, the recision of the program in Douglas County, Colorado, which was, in many ways, a model for other states and other localities, and was a unique gem in the School Choice world. So, can you talk about what happened in Douglas County?

Leslie: In Douglas County, they had a very proactive school board that reasoned that, if they had these district lines where all the kids within the district lines were supposed to go to their public schools … They reasoned that, “Well, what if that wasn’t the best school for any child? And shouldn’t they be responsible to help that child find the best education?” And they said, “Well, sure. It should be our responsibility.” So, they adopted their own voucher program for the district. It’s about the only state in the country where a school district can do this, and they did.

However, courts stepped in pretty quickly when people mounted litigation and put a hold on that program. Well, that was in 2011, and that litigation is actually still pending. So, during all these years, those who oppose Choice have been working overtime to try to unseat the board members in that school district. And this last year, they were successful. So, at the very first board meeting, when they were first sworn in, those who opposed School Choice voted to rescind the voucher program in Douglas County, Colorado, which is just very depressing for the families there who really need that help.

Michael: And let’s see … I heard that there was about 300 kids in that program that had signed up at one point. Is that number correct?

Leslie: There were. There were about … Oh, I think it was maybe about 220 kids who actually took vouchers, and there were others that were standing in line waiting to take vouchers as well, when then, the courts stepped in and put the program on hold.

Jennifer: Thanks, Michael for that data point. And it actually brings me to our next, and happier topic, and I want to turn to you, Mike, because we do oftentimes have programs that are started, that are small, certainly in comparison to the larger population of K-12 students. And I think this year, the Arkansas program got itself a superlative for popularity. Still a small program, but Mike, can you talk a little bit about the growth in that program.

Mike: Yeah, yeah. No, it sure is, and this is kind of an exercise in small numbers. Our criteria for the most popular category is the largest percentage growth in participation over the past year, and Arkansas’s Succeed Scholarship Program knocked that out of the water with a 557 percent growth, but it only went from 23 to 151 students, which is still great. And a large part of that was the added eligibility for foster care students into the program. It had previously been a special needs only scholarship. But now, more and more Arkansas students are able to utilize School Choice. So, Arkansas is the winner, but I’d be remissed in not mentioning Florida’s Gardiner Program, which is an ESA, and it actually had the largest student growth numbers for any program since last year. It grew by 3,068 students. So, kudos to both Arkansas and to Florida.

Jennifer: Yeah. Florida continues to be a national leader in School Choice, and preview of coming attractions, we’ll have two great surveys coming out this year looking at their ESA program and their tax credit scholarship program, both from the usage standpoint, and also, parent satisfaction. So, something to look forward to.

In other good news, I think North Carolina definitely got the prize for best new program this year, and I’ll throw that to all three of you to talk about North Carolina.

Michael: I mean, North Carolina was the state that really passed … It’s only Education Savings Account Program of this past year … I mean, it’s the only one that did that, so obviously, it got the win and the nod there, but they’ve … North Carolina’s been going at this for a number of years. I mean, they had a voucher program for a number of years. I think 2011, Leslie? Was that when they passed the voucher program?

Leslie: I think that’s about right.

Michael: Alright, yeah. So, I mean, they’ve been at this for a long time, and they’ve sort of moved up to the next level of School Choice, if you will. And so, obviously, we give a lot of credit to the coalition there. I mean, Darrell Allison is doing an amazing job, and I know we’ll continue to support and help the efforts of North Carolina to even grow and get bigger.

Leslie: Yeah. I think North Carolina is a good example of what we see in some states where, when people really understand that, yes, School Choice is good as a policy issue. It’s fiscally good for a state, it’s culturally good. There’s a lot of things that are good about it, but when people really understand the good that it does for kids and for families, and how it can really take a child who’s not doing very well in school and then, suddenly, turn that child into a great scholar who’s thriving, and happy, and can’t wait to go to school in the morning, then it makes people work just a little bit harder to make sure that as many kids as possible can have that great experience. And I really think that that’s what’s going on in North Carolina. It started out as just good public policy, but now it’s more personal, as the parents have been really involved in expanding this program.

Michael: And this personal education is part of the name of this program, which is a special needs ESA, and it’ll be great for special needs families in that it’s one of the only, if not the only, ESAs that can actually be combined with existing voucher programs. They’re still kind of working out the kinks about the pathways for that to happen, but it could give families with special needs students a myriad of options to educate, to provide therapeutic services for their children.

Jennifer: That’s outstanding, and I think we’re going to  keep on the positive note. Leslie, you are our resident town tuitioning expert, and our winner this year in the most inspiring category is the town of Croydon in New Hampshire for their town tuitioning program. So, let’s talk a little bit about that.

Leslie: Well, I love Croydon, New Hampshire and the people who live there. You’re right. I do have a special fondness there because in Croydon, New Hampshire, you had the town and the school there, school board that determined that tuitioning kids to school … That that should really be a program that allows kids to go to whatever school is best for them. To give you some background, New Hampshire has a lot of small towns, and towns will pay the tuition to send their kids to other schools especially, like in the case of Croydon, they had a school that went to grade two, but they didn’t have schools past that grade, and that’s fairly common for small towns in New England and in New Hampshire. And so, the towns tuition the kids to go to the next public school or another public school.

But in this case, there was a little Montessori school there that was just right for about five kids. And so, they tuitioned these kids to that little school, and kids started to thrive, and blossom. And so, of course, the prior governor stepped in and decided to shut that down. It was just ridiculous. Part of the Croydon story is that this is a lesson in the government acting in a really ridiculous way to hurt children. Nothing about this made any sense.

What’s inspiring about this is that … In this day and age, where we’re talking all the time … Every single day, we hear on the news about how politicians are fighting each other all the time. This last year in New Hampshire, that didn’t happen. Instead, legislators came together, and they met with the families from Croydon, and they met these kids who were going to the Montessori school, and they were just determined to do the right thing by these kids, and they did. So, they took statutes that were on the books that Croydon had been using to justify what they were doing, and they solidified those statutes so that it is absolutely clear, 100 percent there is, in fact, town tuitioning in the state of New Hampshire. And those sweet little kids from Croydon, New Hampshire, a little town of 700 people … They can go to that Montessori school and do very well.

Jennifer: And that is obviously why that is the most School Choice victory this year.

Well, we have reached our last topic of conversation, the most fun topic of conversation, the one that we get to look forward. The most likely to succeed in 2018, I’m staying with the theme of New Hampshire, that was our top pick this year. But talk about that, but also talk about the other states, especially you, Michael, that are on the watch list of places that we might see new programs, expanded programs, more educational opportunity for K-12 students.

Michael: Sure. So, New Hampshire, obviously as you’ve mentioned, won our most likely to succeed in 2018 category. It is looking to pass … The state of New Hampshire’s looking to pass an Education Savings Account Program. It moved out of the Senate last year, and it’s had a couple of big votes earlier on this year. It moved out of the House of Education Committee, passed a big floor vote, and is currently sitting in the House Finance Committee, where it received a hearing yesterday, and there will be a vote on that as well. So, there’s a couple more small hurdles for that bill to overcome. I would say that … And I think, obviously, the team agrees that New Hampshire’s going to  be the state that’s going to  most likely pass that big, expansive, Educational Choice Program this next year.

Other states that sort of won an honorable mention for us: Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and West Virginia are also looking to pass some large programs as well, and I’m happy to talk about a few of those if you’d like, or I can kick it over to the rest of the gallery and get their thoughts on little things that are going to  happen.

Leslie: Oh, I’d like to weigh in on Mississippi. One of the hardest things that a legislature can do is to look at their school funding formula, and keep it up-to-date. This is probably one of the hardest things that a state legislature can do, which is why they don’t do it very often. This gets done maybe once in a blue moon. But in Mississippi, they, just this past week, filed a bill to update and vastly improve their school funding formula, and they are also on track to move a universal Education Savings Account bill. So, both of those things are really pretty monumental, but Mississippi is … They’re stepping up, and they’re moving, and they’re determined. So, I think Mississippi has as good a chance as anyone to really succeed more than any other state.

Michael: And Mississippi has one of the strongest coalitions I definitely have ever seen –

Leslie: They do.

Michael: In this country, and the governor’s behind this 110 percent.

Leslie: Yes.

Michael: And he’s out there talking about why this is important to the kids of Mississippi, and hopefully this could be something that he leaves as a legacy for him, I think.

Leslie: I totally agree with that. He really … I remember a few years ago when he said that he really came to understand the power of this, not just as good public policy, but how this can improve the lives of kids, and families … You know? And frankly, I remember him saying that for him, it was all about looking to the future and like you said, looking at a legacy, but even more than that. What do you want to see for the future of your state, the state that you love? What do you want for that state? And what are you willing to do today to make things better, to set the course in the proper direction so the kids today and in the future will get a really strong, great education. That’s all to the good for any state, and certainly, for the country.

Mike: And just from a data perspective, I know our research helps some folks in Mississippi with a voter poll to kind of inform the legislature and the public about what voters think of education in that state. Our research team is also looking at conducting and releasing polls and surveys in South Carolina related to private schools. West Virginia will have at least one as well in the coming year. So, be sure to be on the lookout for those, as well as our ABC’s publication.

Jennifer: Which … You just preempted my shout-out. First of all, I want to say thank you to Michael, Mike, Leslie for joining us. This is, again, our largest EdChoice Chat to date, and thank you for your time. I’d also like to say that this is obviously being disseminated during National School Choice Week. We always post our superlatives and try to coincide with that. So, that is an amazing nationwide celebration of educational choice at the state level and at the school level. So, thanks to all who are participating in that week of events.

And as Mike said, our ABC’s of School Choice, the 2018 version, recently launched. You can go on our website at www.edchoice.org, and you can order your copy or copies for your organization or for your own personal review. Go on our website. Those will be shipped out in the next month or two. And as always, I want to thank everyone for joining us today for this latest edition of EdChoice Chats, and thanks for listening.

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