As we look back on 2021, it’s clear there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Whether it was the COVID pandemic or any other number of personal experiences, families are no longer willing to settle for a one-size-fits-all K–12 education system. So many parents have gotten to know their kids’ learning needs better than ever before, ushering in what the education reform movement has dubbed the Year of Educational Choice.
Last year, seven states enacted seven new programs, with Kentucky and Missouri even creating a new program type: the tax-credit education savings account (ESA). And 15 states expanded 23 their existing programs to serve more students.
As one might imagine, our annual EdChoice Yearbook Superlatives saw a real shake-up from previous years.
We couldn’t think of a better time than National School Choice Week to highlight some of those big wins for parents and educational opportunity. Which choice programs unseated our past winners? Which program saw the biggest growth and improvement? Which state is most likely to succeed in creating a strong educational choice program in 2022?
The results are in.
Most Choice-y States
This category was new last year, and we are continuing into 2022. 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 shows us the percentage of all parents in a state who are choosing a charter school, virtual school, choosing a public school outside of their assigned district, learning at home, participating in a publicly funded school choice program, paying for private schools on their own or customizing their child’s education through an ESA.
Simply put, the EdChoice Share 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:
- 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!
- 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 27 percent! (Though not a state, the District of Columbia would by far win this category at 65 percent.)
To see how choice-y your state is by the numbers, check out our latest EdChoice share rankings.
Most Empowering Program
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.
When weighing America’s strongest education savings account (ESA) programs—which provide the most spending flexibility for families—our choice came down to the funding numbers. Four states have ESAs with stable funding streams that tap into 90 percent to 100 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding: Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. Some serve higher proportions of students with special needs, so there’s no perfect way to compare. That said, our team agreed that for the fifth year running, Arizona’s ESA program keeps its title as Most Empowering Program. Notably, Arizona’s funding formula also gives a lot more money than most states to students with special needs—tailored to their particular needs.
Most Well-Rounded Policy
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 fully universal, customizable, parent choice program with a strong and guaranteed funding stream. But this year, West Virginia got pretty darn close. To be eligible, students must have attended public schools for at least 45 full-time instruction days of the school year in which they apply or been enrolled in public school for the entirety of the previous school year. And all kindergarten students are eligible for a Hope Scholarship regardless of previous public school attendance. That means about 93 percent of West Virginia students are eligible.
Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options
We define the Most Popular program not by total student participation, but rather by the biggest percentage growth in participation.
Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options grew by 120 percent from 2020–21 to 2021–22, adding more than 45,000 students to the program during the fall semester.
Other notable programs that grew their numbers last year include:
- Kansas’ Low-Income Students Scholarship grew by 51 percent from 2020–21 to 2021–22.
- Pennsylvania’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program grew by 45 percent from 2018–19 to 2019–20.
- Ohio’s Income-Based Scholarship Program grew by 40 percent from 2019–20 to 2020–21.
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 Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program grew by 35 percentage points, according to our calculations. Other notable programs include:
- Indiana’s School Scholarship Tax Credit Program: +19 percentage points
- Kansas’ Low-Income Students Scholarship: +18 percentage points
- Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarship: +16 percentage points
As we’ve mentioned, states made incredible progress this year to expand educational opportunity for families, so we weren’t spoiled for choice in this category. Our team went with the Nevada legal decision in May of 2021 to affirm the legislature’s repeal of what was once lauded as the best-in-the-nation education savings account program.
West Virginia became an example of what happens when a coalition sticks together and says universal school choice or bust. In 2021, the coalition in West Virginia stood united and passed the most expansive ESA program in the nation, proving states don’t have to start small when it comes to educational opportunity. Our team will be watching West Virginia closely to see how it handles implementation, which can often make or break a choice program.
New Hampshire wins our runner-up prize for Most Inspiring. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Children’s Scholarship Fund of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Department of Education, the Granite State got its Education Freedom Accounts program—the second most expansive ESA in the nation—up and running in the same year it was enacted, which is a very impressive feat. Additionally, about 1 percent of all New Hampshire’s K-12 students are now participating in the ESA—a very strong showing for its first year!
Our first tie of the year went to Missouri and Kentucky for Most Unexpected. Despite repeated disappointments in previous years, coalitions in both of these states came together in 2021 to overcome the odds and pass new educational choice policies. Both also created a new type of program: tax-credit education savings accounts.
Honorable mention goes out to Arkansas for its come-from-behind win. After the state legislature voted down a scholarship bill, the coalition rallied and persuaded legislators to reconsider. In the end, Arkansas lawmakers voted to create a new tax-credit scholarship.
Best New Program
Seven new programs were up in this category, and West Virginia’s Hope Scholarship Program was far-and-away the winner for Best New Program. This new ESA program is open to 93 percent of students in the state. Our estimates show ESA students could get about $4,600 per full school year on average that they can use flexibly to access the learning services that best meet their needs.
Biggest Legal Challenge
Carson v. Makin
The question presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in this case is, “Does a state violate the Religion Clauses or Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution by prohibiting students participating in an otherwise generally available student-aid program from choosing to use their aid to attend schools that provide religious, or “sectarian,” instruction? This case began when parents in Maine sued the state for prohibiting them from using town tuition funding to choose private schools for their children that provide academic instruction through the lens of faith. The ruling in this case could have ramifications for educational choice programs across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on December 8, 2021, and their decision is pending.
Most Likely to Succeed in 2022
In our annual superlatives, we define “success” as the creation of a new educational choice program with strong policy design.
In 2021, Oklahoma passed a significant expansion of its tax-credit scholarship program. With the strong support of Governor Kevin Stitt and legislative leadership, plus a cohesive coalition set on universal choice in 2022, our team will certainly have eyes on The Sooner State.
Other states to watch for new educational choice programs:
To see how the EdChoice team voted last year, visit The 2021 EdChoice Yearbook Superlatives.