We caffeinated. We debated. We declared this year’s yearbook superlatives, including most likely to succeed in 2020.
It’s National School Choice Week, and that means it’s time for the EdChoice team to dig into the states’ school choice policies and efforts. What was the movement’s biggest setback? What was the most inspiring development of the year? Which state is most likely to succeed in 2020? Our team debated all of that and more. Keep scrolling to see how it all shook out.
(Like to listen to a few of our team members discuss this year’s staff picks? Listen to our podcast.)
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 third year running, the Arizona’s aptly named education savings account (ESA) program took 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 this year. Arizona’s program beat out other states with similar programs in Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee, mainly because its funding is strongest. Arizona’s ESA program is the only one in America to date that doesn’t solely serve students with special needs.
AZ – average ESA amount is $14,174, 187% of public funding
FL –$10,418, 115%
MS – $6,765, 80%
NC – $8,746, 96%
TN – $5,830, 63%
Most Well-Rounded Policy
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts
To determine our winner for this category, we always weigh three specific criteria: eligibility, guaranteed funding and flexibility.
This year, Arizona’s ESA won a strong majority of our team’s votes. Of all of the flexible ESA programs that exist, Arizona makes the largest percentage of its families eligible.
Voucher programs rarely win this category because families most often can’t use those funds for any educational expenses other than private school tuition. Tax-credit scholarships can often have very broad, even universal eligibility, but they struggle to beat other program types in this category because their funding is dependent upon the charitable giving of private donations and tax credit caps, and, thus, those programs cannot guarantee funding for every eligible student.
Arkansas’s Succeed Scholarship Program
We define the Most Popular program not by total student participation, but rather by the biggest percentage growth in participation.
Arkansas’s Succeed Scholarship Program grew by 64 percent from 2018–19 to 2019–20, adding 167 students to the Succeed Scholarship Program during the fall semester.
Other notable programs that grew their numbers last year include:
- Tennessee’s Individualized Education Account Program grew by 57 percent from 2017–18 to 2018–19.
- Wisconsin’s Special Needs Scholarship Program grew by 47 percent and eclipsed 1,000 students for the first time in 2019–20.
- South Dakota’s Partners in Education Tax Credit Program grew by 46 percent from 2018–19 to 2019–20, in large part to increased donations stemming from its credit value being raised from 80% to 100%.
Virginia’s Education Improvement Scholarships Tax Credits Program
Like the Most Popular category, Most Improved is all about the numbers. The winner of this category is the program with the biggest student eligibility expansion in the past year.
Families eligible for Virginia’s tax-credit scholarship program grew by 6 percent, according to our calculations. The program recently allowed prekindergarten students to be eligible for scholarships. Another program that saw expansion last year was Rhode Island’s tax-credit scholarship program, which improved eligibility by 3 percent.
The Repeal of Nevada’s ESA
Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts program would have been the most expansive ESA in the nation, so it is with heavy hearts that we report its fate as the biggest setback of 2019. For those who haven’t followed this program here’s what you need to know: The courts ruled that Nevada’s ESA is constitutional, but the legislature has never properly funded it, leaving thousands of children in limbo. After a contentious few years, the state legislature finally managed to repeal it by putting language into a tax bill. The legality of that is currently being challenged in the courts.
Supporters Protect Illinois’s Invest In Kids Program
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s 2019 budget proposal called for a quick phase-out of the Invest in Kids Program, a tax-credit scholarship for low- and middle-income families. Thanks to the grassroots efforts of supporters, the program was spared.
Our Director of National Research Mike McShane phrased it perfectly in this Forbes column:
“The children who benefited from the program made it clear to legislators just how high the cost would be if these options were taken away from them. They appealed not to some abstract idea about the power of choice or the virtues of the free market, but rather to the simple fact that they were getting a better education than they would otherwise be able to absent this program.”
Best New Program
Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program
Our team chose Florida’s new voucher program—the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program—as the Best New Program of the past year. The program was created to alleviate the waitlist of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program while expanding school choice options for thousands of other low- and middle-income residents. It is Florida’s fifth school choice program and second operating voucher program.
Biggest Legal Challenge
Espinoza v. Montana Dept of Revenue
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide in 2020 whether it is constitutionally impermissible under the federal constitution for a state to invalidate a generally available and religiously neutral student-aid program simply because the program affords students the choice of attending religious schools. If the Court rules that religious schools may not be excluded, Montana’s tax-credit scholarship program may be reactivated and parents in dozens of states with Blaine amendments in their state constitutions will rejoice that a major impediment to enacting private school choice programs will be lifted. This will invigorate parents nationwide as they realize a new opportunity for meaningful choice in education has been affirmed. Consequently, a negative decision could be devastating and could prompt state-based action to overcome discriminatory Blaine amendments in state constitutions.
Two honorable mentions in this category include:
Carson v. Makin: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit will decide whether sectarian private schools may participate in Maine’s town tuitioning program, the nation’s first type of voucher, as classified by the U.S. Department of Education.
Bethel Ministries v. Salmon: The U.S. District Court for Maryland Northern District will decide whether Maryland was justified in disqualifying Bethel Christian School from the state’s voucher program.
Most Likely to Expand
New category alert! If you know EdChoice, you know that expanding eligibility and educational opportunity to as many families as possible is our mission. In that spirit, we created this new superlative. This year, we’ve got our eye on Pennsylvania as the state most likely to expand its existing school choice programs to more students.
Last year, the state legislature passed a large expansion of one of its tax-credit scholarship programs, only to have the governor veto it. Nevertheless, a smaller but still significant expansion was later enacted as a part of a larger deal between the legislative and executive branches. Further expansion of the scholarship program is expected this year, and lawmakers are also likely to consider a proposal to create a new ESA for military families.
Most Likely to Succeed in 2020
In our annual superlatives, we define “success” as the creation of a new educational choice program with strong policy design.
Last year, Georgia lawmakers considered a bill to create education savings accounts open to all Georgia students. Although it did not make it over the finish line, its supporters included Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and several legislative leaders. This year, the Georgia legislature is likely to take another look at a similar proposal. In 2018, Georgia significantly expanded its tax-credit scholarship program. Could 2020 be the year the Peach State adopts ESAs? We’ll be keeping a close eye.
To see how the EdChoice team voted last year, visit The 2019 EdChoice Yearbook Superlatives.