The EdChoice team debated and dubbed this year’s yearbook superlatives, including most likely to succeed in 2019.
There’s no better time to reflect on recent school choice happenings and look forward to a new year than during National School Choice Week.
As we do every year, the EdChoice team got together to vote on yearbook superlative categories, such as Most Inspiring, Biggest Setback and Most Likely to Succeed in 2019. To read more about our winners, scroll down.
(Rather listen to a few of our team members discuss our staff picks? Simply click here to listen to that conversation.)
Most Empowering Program
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts
To determine the educational choice program that empowers families most, our team weighed three major criteria: purchasing power, funding stream stability and the ability of parents to use their funds flexibly.
For the second year in a row, Arizona’s education savings account (ESA) program won this category. Because families’ ability to use their funds flexibly is such a key component of an empowering program, the winner had to be an ESA. Arizona’s program beat out other states with similar style programs—Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Tennessee—for three main reasons:
1) Its funding is stronger.
2) Its funding stream is secure and guaranteed for eligible families.
3) Pre-loaded debit cards allow families greater flexibility and purchasing power, unlike some other programs. For instance, Florida’s ESA—a strong and empowering program in its own right—requires parents to front the money for certain expenses and ask for reimbursement later.
Most Well-Rounded Policy
Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program
This category is the most-debated among our team every single year, and 2019 was no exception. To determine our winner, we weigh three specific criteria: eligibility, guaranteed funding and flexibility. Our team struggled to decide between Arizona’s ESA and Indiana’s voucher. Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program won by a single vote. One might think the strongest ESA policy in the states would win every year, but eligibility and security of funding carried more weight than flexibility for our team this year. Here’s a glimpse into our reasoning.
|Eligibility & Eligibility Rate||Guaranteed Funding||Flexibility|
|Indiana’s voucher||333,750 students
|-funding guaranteed for all eligible students, no enrollment cap
-program cannot be put to referendum
|Arizona’s ESA||259,223 students
|-funding guaranteed with enrollment cap at 0.5 percent of last year’s total traditional public and public charter school students
-program funding can be put to referendum
Some might be curious why no tax-credit scholarships made it into the running based on some such programs’ broad eligibility. EdChoice eliminates all programs of this type in this category because the funding is dependent upon the charitable giving of private donations and tax credit caps, and, thus, those programs cannot guarantee funding.
Wisconsin’s Special Needs Scholarship Program
We define the Most Popular program not by total student participation, but rather by the biggest percentage growth in participation. This year’s winner—Wisconsin’s Special Needs Scholarship Program—grew by 181 percent from 2017–18 to 2018–19, an increase of 446 students.
Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program deserves honorable mention, as it saw the most growth by sheer numbers with an increase of 3,952 students from 2015–16 to 2016–17 (for a total of 34,421 participating). Let’s also remember Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which boasts the highest participation of any program across the country with 99,453 scholarships awarded to students.
Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program
Like the Most Popular category, Most Improved is a numbers game. The winner of this category is the program with the biggest student eligibility expansion in the past year.
Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program is this year’s winner, with a 21-percentage point increase (from 8 percent to 29 percent) in eligibility from last year. The reason? The jump in eligibility is most likely a result of the changes the Ohio Department of Education made to how it determines which schools in the state are “low-performing.” That change seemed to affect schools and students in urban areas most. For instance, Dayton is seeing a doubling of students eligible for the program.
Other notable eligibility expansions from last year include:
- Iowa School Tuition Organization Tax Credit Program: 44% to 58%
- Wisconsin Parental School Choice Program (Statewide): 26% to 33%
- Mississippi Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program: 12% to 19%
- Louisiana Scholarships for Certain Students with Exceptionalities Program: 6% to 10%
The Montana Supreme Court’s Ruling in Espinoza v. Department of Revenue
After a long battle in the courts, the Montana Supreme Court finally struck down Montana’s only school choice program, a tax-credit scholarship. In an official statement on behalf of EdChoice, our Vice President of Legal Affairs Leslie Hiner said:
“The Montana Supreme Court, in an extraordinary departure from years of legal precedent set by state, federal, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, ruled that the state’s tax-credit scholarship program is unconstitutional under the Montana Constitution. No other court rendering a final decision regarding tax-credit scholarship programs has reached the same conclusion—not even those states whose constitution’s language aligns with the Montana Constitution.
“This ruling is a bitter slap in the face to families in Montana who use scholarships to help their children access an education that is the best fit for them, where they can learn and become successful adults. We will stand with Montana’s families as we support Kendra Espinoza’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, just as we were honored to be part of this case at the state level.”
If the Supreme Court of the United States does not take up this case and rule in favor of the program, the chances of robust—or any—school choice in Montana is highly unlikely.
Other notable setbacks in 2018 that could affect school choice in 2019 and beyond include:
- Arizona Proposition 305’s defeat, which rolled back a massive expansion of Arizona’s education savings accounts.
- the IRS rule limiting the federal deductibility of charitable contributions, which—though originally intended to close a tax loophole—will lead unintentionally to a decrease in giving to scholarship-granting organizations that provide financial aid to families all over America
Florida’s Hope Scholarship Program
It’s all in the name. Florida’s new tax-credit scholarship program gives bullied students new hope. This first-of-its-kind program allows any child whose family has reported an incident of bullying to their school principal to receive a scholarship to attend another public or private school of their choice. Florida’s Hope scholarships have inspired many other legislatures to consider school choice as a solution for families struggling with issues of bullying.
It’s worth mentioning Pennsylvania in this category as well. In a purple state and with a Democrat governor, the legislature worked together to raise the tax credit cap of the state’s tax-credit scholarship program to $110 million. In today’s contentious political climate, we call that inspiring.
Best New Program
Puerto Rico’s Free School Selection Program
Of all of the states and U.S. territories, only two created new educational choice programs last year. Puerto Rico created an expansive school voucher program, and Florida created an innovative tax-credit scholarship program for students who have been bullied.
The EdChoice team deliberated between these two for a long while, finally settling on Puerto Rico’s voucher program as the best new program because of its broad eligibility, favorable Supreme Court ruling and incredible potential.
Biggest Legal Challenge
Asociación de Maestros v. Departamento de Educación
Opponents of school choice jumped at the chance to challenge Puerto Rico’s new voucher program in the courts. A lower court ruled unfavorably for the voucher program, but in July 2018, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court accepted the case—Asociación de Maestros v. Departamento de Educación—and, in a highly unusual move, gave lawyers on both sides only five business days to file briefs.
The Court noted that there was a great sense of urgency to improve education for families in Puerto Rico, and they were not willing to wait to decide whether the most recent reforms were constitutional. True to their word, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico issued its ruling before the beginning of the next school year. The result: a resounding victory for Puerto Rico families and, ultimately, for school choice.
Most Likely to Succeed in 2019
In our annual superlatives, we define “success” as the creation of a new educational choice program with strong policy design.
This year, we expect advocates in Tennessee to go for a universal ESA program, an exciting departure from past attempts at passing often-limited school voucher programs. Better yet, Tennessee’s new governor, Gov. Bill Lee, is a strong school choice supporter who plans on “pursuing education reforms that put our students first” and “working hard to make sure that parents have every option to give their kids a shot at a bright future.”
OTHER STATES TO WATCH FOR NEW PROGRAMS IN 2019
To see how the EdChoice team voted last year, visit The 2018 EdChoice Yearbook Superlatives.