The Friedman Foundation team put in our votes for this year’s school choice yearbook superlatives, and these are our winners. Check them out and tell us how you would have voted in the comments.
Nevada Education Savings Accounts
Our team weighed purchasing power and the ability of parents to use their funds flexibly to determine America’s Most Empowering educational choice program for parents. The winner? Nevada’s education savings account (ESA) program.
Not only can students receive up to 100 percent of the state’s per-pupil allocation for kids in public schools, but also parents may use their ESA dollars to customize their child’s education well beyond simply paying private school tuition. It is important to note this program is currently under injunction pending litigation, which means it is unable to operate just yet.
Because of this hiccup for families, our runner-up is Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.
Arizona’s ESAs beat out other ESA programs like those in Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee based on two key factors:
- Arizona’s ESA program has broader eligibility, so it can empower more families.
- It is guaranteed funding. For instance, Florida’s average projected ESA funding amount is slightly higher ($10,716) than Arizona’s ($10,300). But Florida’s funding is not guaranteed for all eligible students—only for those who get in before the funding cap is reached. Arizona’s program does not have a funding cap, so any eligible student who applies will receive their ESA funds.
Louisiana Tuition Donation Rebate Program
This year, we defined the Most Popular program not by sheer 2016 student participation numbers, but rather by biggest percentage growth in participation over the past year. In that case, Louisiana’s Tuition Donation Rebate Program, a tax-credit scholarship program for students from low-income households, is the winner. Although this program’s raw participation numbers are still low relative to other school choice programs, its participation grew by 1,374 percent between the 2014–15 to 2015–16 school years—beating out Pennsylvania’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (478%) and New Hampshire’s Education Tax Credit Program (220%) for first place.
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts
Arizona’s ESA program was the only existing educational choice program to see an eligibility expansion in 2015, and it did so with a bang. The Arizona legislature opened up the state’s ESAs to all students living on tribal lands. That’s more than 25,000 more Arizona children than were eligible the previous year!
Alabama’s Education Scholarship Program
Alabama took a step backward in their school choice efforts this year when the legislature passed a bill making changes to the state’s tax-credit scholarship, the Education Scholarship Program. The program allowed low-and middle-income students who are zoned to attend a “failing” school to receive a scholarship to attend a private school of choice. The 2015 bill lowered the program’s maximum income eligibility from 150 percent of Alabama’s median household income ($66,858 for a household of four in 2014) to the federal free and reduced-price lunch program ($44,863 for a family of four in 2015–16). This development stops many students who were using the scholarship program from participating in the program in 2016. The legislation also imposed an artificial cap on the program worth $6,000 for elementary school students, $8,000 for middle school students, and $10,000 for high school students. This is the first time a state has ever taken action to take back school choice options from students.
Best New Program Regulation
Nevada’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program
One great thing about ESAs is that the regulatory responsibility is where it should be: on the parents. So, ESA programs will always win in the category of healthiest regulation. This is why we are opting, this year, to look elsewhere.
Of the seven new school choice programs created during the 2015 legislative session, one non-ESA program stood above the rest in terms of its regulations on private schools: Nevada’s new tax-credit scholarship program. This program is our team’s winner for its light touch on how private schools report to the state.
Many other school choice programs require participating private schools to adhere to costly and administratively burdensome rules, which deter many great providers from joining the programs. The Nevada tax-credit scholarship program puts the regulatory onus on scholarship-granting organizations and only requires private schools to maintain a record of the academic progress of students, which private schools do already.
Nevada Education Savings Accounts
We define a well-rounded program by examining three aspects: eligibility, guaranteed funding, and flexibility.
Nevada’s ESAs allow parents to spend their education dollars to customize their children’s education using multiple learning options. Many other strong programs only allow funds to pay for private school tuition. This program’s design also makes it nearly universal in terms of eligibility with strong guaranteed funding at 90 or 100 percent of the state’s per-pupil spending in public schools.
Because of the aforementioned injunction against the program, we elected to give mention to our Most Well-Rounded runner-up: Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program.
Indiana’s voucher program is the largest voucher program in terms of participation, and it has rather wide eligibility with more than 671,000 students eligible statewide. What sets it apart from the existing programs with, say, 100 percent eligibility or higher rates of participation, such as tax credit/deduction and tax-credit scholarship programs, is the factor of purchasing power. Data show the average per-student funding of Indiana’s voucher program is $3,986, or 41 percent of public school per-student spending.
With a voucher or ESA, students are guaranteed a sum of financial assistance that gives them the means to choose schooling alternatives realistically. Compare that with how a tax-credit scholarship program works: Because government “caps” the number of tax credits distributed to donors supporting scholarship-giving nonprofits, that in turn can affect the size of children’s scholarships. For example, if requests for Florida’s tax-credit scholarships suddenly doubled, the size of each scholarship would be cut in half. That’s because there’s a capped amount of available funds for students in a given year. By comparison, if requests for Indiana’s vouchers suddenly doubled, each would still be guaranteed a voucher worth either 50 percent or 90 percent of the state’s tuition support amount, depending on their income level. That’s not to say tax-credit scholarship programs aren’t sometimes a better option than vouchers or ESAs. For instance, they can be a good alternative in states that still have archaic Blaine amendments, which were created in the late 1800s to keep public funding in Protestant public schools and out of predominantly immigrant private Catholic schools.
Biggest Legal Challenge
Doyle v. Taxpayers for Public Education
Despite a devastating loss in the Colorado Supreme Court in June, advocates of the Douglas County Choice Scholarship Pilot Program persevere as we make the journey to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Amidst a tide of litigation against educational choice programs this year, Doyle v. Taxpayers for Public Education tops the list as the Biggest Legal Challenge simply because of the sheer potential impact of this case. If the Supreme Court decides to hear this case and rules in favor of the Douglas County voucher program, it could affect Blaine Amendments, which have long been used to block school choice in states across the country.
You can learn more on the details of the case, including updates on continuing developments, here. The Supreme Court will likely decide by February whether to take up the case.
Other litigation to take note of are two lawsuits filed against Nevada’s ESAs. Stay tuned to our blog and on Twitter @edchoice for more as litigation develops.
Most Likely to Succeed in 2016
Our team expects Mississippi to be the state most likely to succeed in creating a new educational choice program with strong policy design this year.
Mississippi has been gaining momentum over the past several years in its journey to improve education. And last year, the legislature succeeded in passing an ESA for students with special needs, which was signed by the state’s very school choice-friendly governor.
In fact, Gov. Phil Bryant reaffirmed his support of educational freedom for families this month in his 2016 State of the State address.
“Just imagine that parents could take their hard-earned tax dollars and send their child to a school of their choice. Imagine the freedom of a parent in a ‘failing’ school to send an at-risk child to a superior school nearby but outside the district. Why should only the affluent enjoy the benefits of these fine schools? Your ZIP Code or income level should not determine your opportunity to get a good education. Let us make this bold decision and give these children hope.”
-Gov. Phil Bryant
Other states to watch for new school choice programs in 2016 include Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and South Carolina—all states that have at least one educational choice program already. And finally, South Dakota has the potential to surprise by creating its first-ever educational choice program.
To see how the Friedman Foundation team voted last year and how close we were with our predictions, visit our 2015 America’s School Choice Yearbook Superlatives post.