The EdChoice team has never experienced a year quite like 2020. Though we’re all eager to move forward, we couldn’t put it in the rearview mirror for good before bringing you our annual yearbook superlatives
What better time than National School Choice Week to highlight some of the big school choice challenges and wins from last year? What was the most inspiring development during one of America’s darkest times? Which program saw the biggest growth in student participation? Which state is most likely to succeed in creating a strong educational choice program in 2021?
We discussed, and our votes are in.
Most Choice-y State
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts
New category alert! At EdChoice, we think it is important to track the total share of students choosing an educational setting beyond their assigned district school. We call it the EdChoice Share, and it is the number that shows us which states aren’t just talking the talk of school choice but walking the walk.
In this new category, we will always have two winners:
1. The top state for private educational choice share, meaning the state that has the largest share of students choosing a non-public school option through a program like education savings accounts, vouchers or tax-credit scholarships. This year, the winner is Arizona at 7 percent of K–12 students using choice programs!
2. The top for overall EdChoice share, meaning the state with the highest total percentage of students choosing educational settings other than their assigned district school including choice programs, charter schools and more. This year’s winner is Louisiana with 26.1 percent! (Though not a state, the District of Columbia would also win this category at 52 percent.)
To see how choice-y your state is by the numbers, check out our latest EdChoice share rankings.
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 fourth year running, Arizona’s education savings account (ESA) program won Most Empowering Program. ESA programs tend to dominate this category because of the flexibility they allow families—to pay private school tuition and/or customize their child’s education. Arizona’s funding also is stronger than other ESA programs in Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee, which gave it the edge.
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.
No state—yet—has created and launched an operable program that meets the EdChoice ideal: a universal ESA with a strong and guaranteed funding stream. This year, Arizona’s ESA won this category, but Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program and Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, both vouchers, gave it a run for its money. Voucher programs don’t often win this category because families can’t use those funds for any educational expenses other than private school tuition, which is a ding for flexibility. All three of these notable programs have strong eligibility rates and guaranteed funding.
Puerto Rico’s Free School Selection Program
We define the Most Popular program not by total student participation, but rather by the biggest percentage growth in participation.
Puerto Rico’s Free School Selection Program grew by 514 percent from 2019–20 to 2020–21, adding more than 2,000 students to the Free School Selection Program during the fall semester.
Other notable programs that grew their numbers last year include:
- Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship grew by 98 percent from 2019–20 to 2020–21.
- Tennessee’s Individualized Education Account Program grew by 85 percent from 2019–20 to 2020–21.
- Wisconsin’s Special Needs Scholarship Program grew by 31 percent from 2019–20 to 2020–21.
Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit 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 Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program grew by 5 percentage points, according to our calculations. Other notable programs include:
- Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program: +4 percentage points
- South Dakota’s Partners in Education Tax Credit Program: +3 percentage points
The Unconstitutional Ruling for Tennessee’s Education Savings Account Pilot Program
The home rule provision of the Tennessee constitution says that the legislature can’t target a particular county for legislation. The ESA Pilot Program—which actually functions like a voucher—was written to apply to Shelby County (Memphis) and Davidson County (Nashville). In 2020, the two lower courts ruled this program unconstitutional based on that home rule provision. Now just recently, the attorney general of Tennessee filed an appeal up to the Tennessee Supreme Court, and we’re waiting to hear if the court will take the case or whether they will allow the lower court rulings to stand.
Another honorable mention for the Setback category comes to us from South Carolina. Unfortunately, South Carolina struck out twice last year with two programs. Before the pandemic hit, lawmakers took up the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Account Act, which ultimately did not succeed. Then, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the Governor’s use of GEER funding to provide a voucher-like program called SAFE Grants, was unconstitutional.
The Response of Parents and Teachers to the Pandemic
There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most disruptive challenge to education in America last year and even still in 2021. Parents and teachers had to build the plane as they flew it. We saw parents sacrificing work to educate their kids, developing learning pods and joining microschools. We saw teachers innovating and supporting their students through an incredible transition to virtual learning, despite experiencing anxieties over resources and taking a huge hit to morale.
Another inspiring story from 2020 comes to us from Arizona. Tons of ESA moms—known as Empowered AF (Arizona Families)—banded together to successfully stop local school choice opponents’ ballot initiative. That’s the power of school choice communities!
Best New Program
Utah Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program
The only new school choice program to make it out of 2020 was Utah’s Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program. As the name of the program says, it is a tax-credit scholarship program geared to help students with special needs access the right educational setting. It’s Utah’s second school choice program.
Biggest Legal Challenge
Espinoza v. Montana Dept of Revenue
We said the Espinoza v. Montana Dept of Revenue case was the biggest legal challenge last year, and it wins again this year. Why? Because it was a huge victory for school choice. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that religious schools may not be excluded from Montana’s tax-credit scholarship program, bringing the program back to life and potentially opening the door to school choice in dozens of states with Blaine amendments in their state constitutions.
Three honorable mentions in this category include:
Carson v. Makin: On October 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled against parents in Maine who wish to choose a religious school for their children’s education under Maine’s town tuitioning program, the nation’s first type of voucher, as classified by the U.S. Department of Education. Parents were permitted, for 109 years, to choose religious schools through town tuitioning from the beginning of the program in 1873 until 1982. This parents will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their complaint.
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, based on their religious views on marriage and gender and perceived hostility to LGBTQ+ students, rather than an actual violation of law. Trial proceedings should begin later this year.
Adams v. McMaster: The South Carolina Supreme Court struck down the Governor’s use of CARES Act GEER funding for a pandemic relief program called SAFE Grants which would have allowed low-income families impacted by COVID-19 to access additional schooling options. The ruling is overly broad and may be challenging for future program design.
Most Likely to Expand
If you know EdChoice, you know that expanding eligibility and educational opportunity to as many families as possible is our mission. This year, we’ve got our eye on our home state of Indiana to expand its school voucher program and potentially pilot a special needs ESA program. Leadership in the House and Senate seem inclined to expand the program’s eligibility to include incomes up to 300 percent of the free and reduced-price lunch threshold.
Some other states to watch for expansion:
Most Likely to Succeed in 2021
In our annual superlatives, we define “success” as the creation of a new educational choice program with strong policy design.
A universal education savings account program is set to be introduced in New Hampshire. Two years ago, the Senate passed a universal ESA, and our experts feel the new program proposal shows great promise.
Other states to watch for new programs:
- North Dakota
- West Virginia
To see how the EdChoice team voted last year, visit The 2020 EdChoice Yearbook Superlatives.