Ep. 293: 2022 EdChoice Superlatives

January 28, 2022

In this episode we hear from our team on the EdChoice Superlatives and get a snapshot of the highs and lows of the school choice movement from the previous year.

Jacob Vinson: Hello everyone, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. My name is Jacob Vinson. I’m the art director here at EdChoice. Typically, I’m not on this side of the microphone. Usually, I’m behind the scenes doing the editing and recording, but today I’m going to be your host. I’m joined today by three of my colleagues, Lauren Hodge, Jason Bedrick and John Kristof.

The subject of our conversation today will be the EdChoice Superlatives. This is something that we do every year. It gives a sort of snapshot of the highs and lows of the school choice movement in the previous year.

The first category that we have is Most Choice-y State. Here at EdChoice, we think it’s 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 something other than their traditional public school, whether it be a charter school, virtual school, learning at home, et cetera.

Team, who won the category of Most Choice-y State in 2021?

John Kristof: The winner for Choice-iest State this year, actually a repeat winner, is Arizona, where 7% of Arizona students are using choice programs of some kind. We awarded two Choice-iest State awards, one to specifically address private educational choice, and then another for choice overall, which would include things like homeschoolers or kids who attend charter schools. But specifically looking at private education choice, the winner this year is Arizona, where 7% percent of all K12 students in Arizona are using one of their several private school choice programs.

As far as the overall Choice-iest State, if you will, the winner this year is Louisiana, where a solid 27% of their K12 students are attending a nontraditional public school of some kind. Now, it’s important to note with Louisiana, this number is boosted to a good degree by the fact that most of the school district in New Orleans is run by charters, so Louisiana is a little bit of a unique scenario.

But if you want to talk about unique scenarios, really the highest Choice-iest State, if you will, is Washington DC, which would win this category at a whopping 65%. It has pretty decently high numbers across private school choice, non-school choice and other forms of private school attendance and charter schools as well.

Jason Bedrick:  Yeah, and I should just note Arizona is nipping at Louisiana’s heels. And as a matter of fact, may even be ahead of Louisiana. For our charter school data, we’re using a national data set. All of the national data sets tend to be a few years behind, because you can only be as up to date as the slowest state getting that data to the feds.

But if we look at the data that’s coming out of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, they’ve already got north of 20% of Arizona students attending a charter school. So, if you were to add that to our EdChoice share data, plus what we have for homeschoolers, which is about two and a half percent, it may be the case that Arizona is actually ahead. So, in the coming years, as the data catches up, there’s a lot of competition for the Choice-iest State spot.

Jacob Vinson:  On to our next category, which is Most Empowering Program. To determine the educational choice program that empowers families the most, our team weighed three major criteria, purchasing power, funding stream stability, and the ability of parents to use their funds flexibly.

John Kristof: There are a few clear cut leading candidates for this category. Specifically, four states with education savings accounts, Arizona, Florida, now New Hampshire and West Virginia. There’s a few things to consider if we’re trying to rank these. Because on the one hand, you want to look at eligibility and making sure that a lot of kids can be involved, but you also want to make sure that these kids are very well funded as well. So, taking everything into account, the team came together and said that Arizona’s ESA defended its title as the most empowering program, mostly due to just how substantial its purchasing power is. Really is empowering to this students who do receive that.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, all of the states that we were looking at were states that had education savings accounts that are publicly funded and available to every single child who applies, so that narrowed it down to Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire, West Virginia. West Virginia’s programs not yet up and running. New Hampshire passed their program this year, or last year in 2021, and amazingly got it up and running in the same year, and has greater eligibility. But eligibility wasn’t really a part of what we were considering when it came to the most empowering.

It’s really that Arizona’s public school funding formula provides a lot more support for students with special needs. There are some states where the state is only kicking in a little bit of extra assistance for students with special needs, but in Arizona, really, the majority of the special needs funding is coming from the state.

Therefore, a program like this … The typical student in Arizona is getting just shy of about $7,000 per pupil, but students with special needs, depending on the particular category could be getting sometimes 15, or even $20,000 or more. So we found that to be the most empowering program, even though there are lots of different types of students who are eligible, students who are assigned to a D or F rated public school, students who are the children of military personnel, students who are living on a Native American reservation, adopted through the state foster care system, et cetera, et cetera, more than 60% of students in Arizona are students with special needs. And that’s because it is such an empowering program. And that’s why it won Most Empowering Program yet again this year.

Jacob Vinson: I’m not surprised at all that an education savings account won this category. The flexibility that comes with those programs is outstanding. Seems to me that ESAs are always going to be the most empowering type of program.

On to our next category, which is Most Well-Rounded Policy. To determine this, we weigh three specific criteria, eligibility, guaranteed funding, and flexibility.

John Kristof: As we note in the blog post, we don’t have a perfect ESA program yet, but in 2021, we did see our most valiant attempt at a universal education savings account program through the Hope Scholarship Program in West Virginia, which provides eligibility to 93% of West Virginia students, which is a very lovely number. Given certain parameters, that number probably is going to increase over the next few years as well. So, not only is West Virginia starting really solidly, but it’s also heading in an even better direction.

With that, with the way that the funding is structured in a really empowering way as well, and it has the flexibility that you would expect from an education savings account, allowing parents to use funds for the typical variety of educational services that we tout, West Virginia really set a new bar for what an ESA can be in this country, and is a very well deserving and well loved winner of the Most Well Rounded Policy this year.

Jacob Vinson: Our next category is the Most Popular Program. And we define the most popular program, not by the total number of students participating, but rather by the biggest percentage growth in participation. So, what program had the largest growth in participation in 2021?

John Kristof: This one is a little bit easier to determine, in that, you can just look at some raw numbers here. This year, the winner is Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options. Now, there was a lot of restructuring of Florida’s several private school choice programs over the last year that corresponded also with some eligibility expansions. All of the movement did lead to dramatic growth in Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship, the voucher one for educational options. 120% growth from 2021 to what we have seen so far in 2021 to 2022. Over 45,000 students compared to the previous year, which is quite impressive.

It actually is the second year in a row in the program’s three years that we have seen dramatic growth in the Family Empowerment Scholarship. So, it’ll be interesting to see if the FES-EO will continue this growth in the future. Obviously, there are some extraneous circumstances with all the restructuring, but it’s very exciting to see.

I also want to shout out a runner up, which is Kansas’ Low Income Student Scholarship, just because I know there was a hard fought eligibility expansion and reform bill in Kansas there successfully passed, which would was great, and we saw some benefit from it. We saw some fruit, in that, participation in that program grew 51% from 2020 to ’21 to 2021 to ’22.

So, delightful and encouraging growth, both on large scales and a little bit smaller scales.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, this is a really important change in Kansas. Kansas used to limit their participation to students that were assigned to the bottom 100 public schools in the state. The thing is, every year the data comes out, and some of the schools that are at the very bottom stay there, but there are a whole bunch of schools that are moving in and out of the bottom 100 each year. So, it was very difficult to keep parents apprised of whether they were eligible or not.

One year kids in town X, in Springfield, let’s say, are eligible and the next year, Springfield is no longer eligible. So, some kid was going to that school, but the neighbor goes to apply and they say, “Oh, sorry, Springfield’s not eligible anymore. You can’t go.” But next door in Shelbyville, Shelbyville is now eligible, but nobody over there knows about it. So, it was very, very complicated.

And the other thing is, we recognize that even a child who is assigned to a school that is very high performing on average just might not be the right fit for that student. So, policy makers recognized the problem with the so-called failing schools model, that your access to a variety of different education options shouldn’t be dependent on the average performance of the school. It has shifted to a low income based model. And we’ve already started to see that this is really doing a lot to expand educational opportunity there.

I’ll just throw in two other runners up, which are Pennsylvania, which also their Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program grew by 45%, and Ohio’s Income Based Scholarship Program grew by 40%. So, we are seeing incredible growth all across the country, but these four states, Florida, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Ohio really stood out.

Lauren Hodge: And what’s so interesting about the Ohio example, Jason, is that there’s currently litigation that was filed to get rid of all of the types of programs that Ohio has. Which, for those of you who are familiar with this issue, and with Ohio, in particular, they have a variety of programs that are available within the state. And in a year that there’s such tremendous growth, in a year where we are under yet again, another pandemic, in a year where parents are still trying to seek that program, the Income Based Scholarship Program was the one that grew by 40% in Ohio.

And I think it’s one of those things that as we … Year end, we take a look at those programs, take a look at what did really well, what’s struggling. I think one of the things that’s so interesting to me is that, here we are with parents demanding more and more options. And yet, the attacks, the assaults, they will continue to come.

But I think what is proving true, especially in these times, is that parents want these options. These programs don’t grow just by chance. These programs grow because parents want them, because parents desire options, because children have different needs, and children thrive in different environments. If there’s anything the last two years has taught us, it’s that not every environment works the same for every child and that children might need some of these options.

So, I think it is encouraging that even with litigation pending, or the threat of a litigation, parents are saying, “No, I want these programs. I want this option.”

Jacob Vinson: Moving on to our next category, which is Most Improved.

John Kristof: This year, the winner is the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program. Florida and Kansas were not the only programs to see a lot of exciting growth in eligibility and restructuring and things like that. Indiana saw some changes as well. And we saw some results, in that, when we do calculations both the number one and the number two slots, as far as eligibility growth, is won by Indiana.

So, number one, being the Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program, the voucher program here, grew by 35 percentage points. And then, number two, is Indiana’s School Scholarship Tax Credit Program, which grew by 19 percentage points. So, Indiana taking the gold and silver in the most improved category about eligibility expansion.

Worth noting, again, we’ve applauded Kansas, a little bit here. Kansas took bronze with an increase in 18 percentage points, as far eligibility goes.

Jacob Vinson: Moving on to a less positive category, the biggest setback in 2021. Lauren, what do you have for us?

Lauren Hodge: Well, in a year of very positive growth, we, of course, have challenges and there is no greater setback, I think, to this past year, than Nevada. For those of you who have followed along and are familiar with the educational choice landscape over the years, you know that Nevada once passed the most progressive program in the nation, and it stood to be transformative to the state.

Unfortunately, Nevada serves as that cautionary tale on where the policy and the details really matter. For those of you that are familiar with the Nevada case, while it was found to be constitutional previously, the funding mechanism for the program was not. So, what ended up happening is, while the program remained constitutional and on the books, the funding mechanism was held unconstitutional, so it was inoperable.

Litigation continued around this case, and what ended up happening in May of 2021, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed that the legislature was constitutionally required to pass legislation with a two thirds vote instead of a simple majority. The impact on that was to effectively repeal the entire program out in Nevada. Really taking off the books what could have been the most transformative policy in the nation.

That is frustrating. That is devastating to parents who are seeking those options, to children who just want an education, want to be able to go to a school that they can thrive in. That doesn’t mean the work’s done there. That means that you dig in, that means that you continue to work. And partners in that wonderful state are continuing to move the ball and trying to make sure that there are options available for families in Nevada.

However, it’s undeniable … And I think one of the big things for partners, for those that are listening, for anyone interested in these types of programs, I think the biggest takeaway from Nevada, if we can look at the silver lining to the biggest setback, it’s that the details matter. You must understand how these programs are funded. You must understand where those dollars are coming from. You must be not cavalier about your approach to these programs. There’s a significant litigation history behind these programs and the legality stands with these programs. However, there can be great danger when you ignore those details. And Nevada serves as that unfortunate cautionary tale at the moment.

It’s sad in a really powerful year to have had this law fully repealed, but I have no doubt we’ll see Nevada come out swinging again in some way, shape, or form.

Jason Bedrick: I just have to say that the silver lining here is that the worst thing to happen to the school choice movement in 2021 was losing a program that was never implemented in the first place. There has never been a school choice program that has been implemented, and then legislatively repealed. We’ve had a few struck down by state supreme courts. Although, it’s been a while, at least any that have been struck down and then not overturned by the US Supreme Court. So, the legal challenges seem to be fewer and far between, and we have actually never seen a program implemented and repealed. So frankly, the opposition to the school choice movement can slow us down, but they can’t stop us.

Jacob Vinson: Now, moving back to a more positive category, the Most Inspiring.

Jason Bedrick: All right. Well, most inspiring this year, the clear favorite of everybody was West Virginia. And that’s because West Virginia passed an education savings account program, aptly named the Hope Scholarship, which is available to every single child in the state who is switching out of a public school or who is entering kindergarten, so that’s 93% of children in the state are currently eligible.

And if they don’t hit 5% enrollment after a couple years, that prior public requirement is going to go away, so every single child in the state will be eligible, which would make it actually the first truly universal ESA in the nation. It is the new gold standard that other states and state policy makers are aspiring to. And man, we have heard from legislators all across the country saying things like that West Virginia has shown them what is possible. And they want to be the next West Virginia.

We’re seeing universal ESAs being proposed all across the country right now in state legislatures, in ways that we have just never seen before. So, it’s inspiring not only to us and a number of school choice advocates that we’ve talked to, but it’s inspiring to state policy makers, it’s inspiring to parents. West Virginia was the clear favorite. And I’m looking forward to seeing if all this inspiration translates into additional policy successes across the fruited plain.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention our runner up, which is New Hampshire. New Hampshire also passed a publicly funded education savings account called the Education Freedom Account Program for the live free, or die state. It is the second most expansive ESA in the nation. About a third of students are eligible.

But here’s what we found really inspiring. They passed the bill in 2021, and within just a few months, they got it up and running. We haven’t seen something like this happen before, at least for an ESA. And I give a lot of credit to the State Department of Education and to the State Board of Education. And also, especially, to Children’s Scholarship Fund, Kate Baker out there does amazing work. They are the nonprofit scholarship organization that the state has contracted with to administer the program. Already 1% of public school children in the state have signed up to participate in the program. So, that is a really strong showing for the first year, and also deserves to be mentioned in our most inspiring category.

Lauren Hodge: And Jason, if I can take a point of privilege here. I’m coming up on five years at EdChoice and have had the privilege of working with both New Hampshire and West Virginia at various times. And I think one of the things that I am so hopeful about when we talk about these inspiring programs is what can happen when coalitions, when partners, align and say, “No, we’re going big.”

You and the research team did such a great project this past year with Chicken Little and gathering all of that information, putting it together. And to see the potential policy ramifications, whether you go big, or whether you go very small, the same arguments that are made. Whether you have a universal program, or you have this very small sliver for just a certain segment of the population, the arguments never change. You’re always going to be hit with, “You’re devastating public schools.”, “You’re destroying it.”, “There’s not going to be money.” It doesn’t matter how big or how small it went.

And so, these two states really said, “If that’s going to be the case, we’re going big, and we’re going to really shoot for the moon.” And they did it. And so, I’m just very encouraged to see partners align in that vision, policy makers align in that vision, and say, “The arguments are the same either way. Let’s go for it. And let’s really see if we can transform policy here.”

John Kristof: Yeah. And just to echo a little bit of what you both were saying. I worked for a very brief period of time doing fiscal work at state legislature. The most common request that I know that the Legislative Aid Organization got, was if a legislator had an idea, it was what are other states doing? And clearly, West Virginia has totally reshaped the conversation about what other states are doing and will empower other states and other legislators to help them rethink, oh wow, education financing and school choice can look way different than what I thought the limits were, both politically and feasibly.

And I appreciate, Jason, you pointing out New Hampshire as well, because legislative victories are very exciting, but implementation is at least as important, because ultimately interested in is student accessing schools that work better for them. And for New Hampshire to have as many kids as they have enrolled in the program so fast, and the infrastructure that they have to help make that happen …

I was on their website a little bit earlier today for something else. Very impressive. And I hope that legislators, or people in departments of education across the country also ask the question of, what are other states doing, and look to, for example, New Hampshire. It’s not just New Hampshire doing a great job, but they’ve just done such a good job that other states, I hope, look to them as well for the implementation side of things to help kids.

Jacob Vinson: I had no idea that New Hampshire got that program up and running in two months. That’s incredible. Especially during times like this, time is certainly of the essence. So, well done, New Hampshire.

Moving on to our next category. A lot of times when these pieces of legislation get passed, we can see it coming from a mile away. We have a great state team here at EdChoice that keeps us all well informed, but occasionally there are curve balls that we just don’t see coming. So, our next category is Most Unexpected.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. We had the first tie of the year and that went to both Missouri and Kentucky. These are two states that have been trying for many, many years to pass an educational choice program, and it’s always sort of been like Lucy and the football. And this year, in both states, the coalitions really came together, rode the wave of pro school choice sentiment, and passed two new types of programs.

Both states passed a tax credit funded education savings account. So, this is sort of like a combination of … Listeners of this program are aware of tax credit scholarship programs and also education savings accounts. This idea merges the two. And like I said, they’re the first two states to do this. We’re going to see how that works. Hopefully, they’ll get them up and running for the next school year.

Honorable mention also goes to Arkansas, which had a really incredible come from behind win. They had a tax credit scholarship bill that, unfortunately, had been defeated. And so, a lot of people sort of wrote Arkansas off and said, “Well, that’s the end of that. We’re going to turn our attention to other states.” But the legislature was not done.

There were some folks in the legislature that decided that they wanted another bite at the apple. They filed another tax credit scholarship bill. This one, a little smaller, it’s only a $2 million program, so fewer than 1% of students in the state are going to be able to participate, but it’s a good start. And legislators said, “You know what? We’re going to give this another chance.” And the second time around, they ended up passing it. That’s the first tax credit scholarship in Arkansas.

So, these are our two … Well, I guess, three states that won for Most Unexpected.

Jacob Vinson: Now, on to our next category, which is the Best New Program of 2021.

Jason Bedrick: As with Most Inspiring, the obvious answer is West Virginia’s Hope Scholarship Program, again, because it is an education savings account. These are types of policies that provide families with the greatest freedom and flexibility to customize their child’s education. And it is open to nearly every single student in the state with a path to being truly universal. So by far, it is the best new program.

Jacob Vinson: We have two categories left, starting off with the Biggest Legal Challenge.

Lauren Hodge: Well, I am sure everyone would rather hear from Leslie Heiner on this one, but stay tuned. I have no doubt, the wonderful Leslie and LDEC will have a podcast all about Carson v. Makin, but that is the case to watch.

So, for those that have known this issue for a couple of years, you know we are following Espinoza very carefully. This is the next big question, post Espinoza. And it’s up at the Supreme Court right now. And the real question here is, does a state violate the Equal Protection Clause or the religious clauses in the Constitution, when they prohibit students from being able to use dollars to attend, essentially, a school that teaches through a faith lens.

This issue is coming out of Maine. What ended up happening is, that Maine has that town tuitioning program, the oldest in the nation. They have this town tuitioning program that if you don’t have a school that is within your geographic area, essentially, you can receive your dollars and go to another school, which helps eliminate the need to have all of these different schools in a very tiny state.

And so, these parents were eligible for this program. They wanted to take these dollars. They wanted to use these dollars at an institution that taught through a faith lens, and the state prohibited them from doing that. This ruling can have tremendous potential ramifications for educational choice programs across the country. There were oral arguments on December 8th, 2021. We’ll look forward to having a ruling in this year, actually. So, that’s the case to watch and we’ll see what happens.

Jacob Vinson: Like Lauren said, listeners can keep an eye out for our next legal podcast with Leslie Heiner, where she’s going to dig a little bit deeper into the Carson v. Makin case.

On to our last category, which is Most Likely to Succeed in 2022.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. This one is a tough one, because there are a lot of states where we’re seeing some action. Georgia legislators just filed a universal ESA, in Idaho, there’s supposed to be a very expansive ESA filed. We’re seeing in Iowa, in Ohio, in Utah, lots of states that are filing bills that have a really good chance.

But we think the one that is the most likely is in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is looking at a universal ESA. It has the very strong support of Governor Kevin Stitt, as well as legislative leadership, and a really strong cohesive coalition. So, we are really looking forward to great things from the Sooner State in 2022.

Jacob Vinson: Well done, team. Thank you to all of our listeners for joining us on another edition of EdChoice Chats. Please be sure to sign up for our email on our website, EdChoice.org. Be sure to subscribe to this podcast wherever you listen to your podcast and be sure to follow us on social media. We are @EdChoice. Thank you again. We look forward to talking with you all again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.