Ep. 396: The ABCs of School Choice – 2024 Edition

November 14, 2023

EdChoice CEO Robert Enlow talks with Colyn Ritter and Marc LeBlond about the 2024 edition of The ABCs of School Choice

Click here to order your 2024 copy for free!

Robert: Hello and welcome to another EdChoice podcast for 2023. We’re excited because this year we are releasing The ABCs of School Choice ahead of the end of the year so that we can get ahead of legislative cycles, we can get it into the hands of policymakers and advocates and partners as quick as we can. And there’s been so much movement about school choice and educational choice over the last year that it could easily fill up a half hour segment.

And so we’re going to launch into a conversation about The ABCs of School Choice, which is the most comprehensive guide to educational choice programs in America. We started this idea of The ABCs of School Choice in 2001, so this will be our 23rd edition of this publication. In 2001, it was a very narrow booklet with a small number of programs, and this year it’ll be well over 125 pages with programs from all over the country.

It has become, without a doubt, the go-to resource for policymakers and for advocates to learn about each individual program. And it’s grown from just looking at all school choice programs as the same, to then breaking it out based on tax credits and vouchers, then breaking it out on tax credits, vouchers and education savings account. It’s just grown and grown and grown.

We have a legal history in the publication. We have a whole back section of regulations on both the voucher programs for families and for schools. It really is a comprehensive guide that policymakers love, and I’m lucky to be joined here today with two of the people who have been tasked with getting all of the information for this booklet together. Colyn Ritter from our research and thought leadership team, and Marc LeBlond from our policy and advocacy team. So welcome gents. Thanks for joining me.

Colyn: Thank you, Robert. Looking forward to going through this today.

Robert: So I guess the first question here is, the two of you, what’s different about this book compared to other ones? What’s new?

Marc: So to start, we’ve got refundable tax credits as its own category. In the past, those were lumped in with individual credits and deductions. So we had roughly some 11 states previously falling under that category, and with the addition of Oklahoma, Which Is a universally eligible up to a $7,500 refundable tax credit available for citizens, we decided to be more intentional in terms of breaking that out in terms of which programs really offer robust choice for its citizens. So now we’ve got four states falling under that refundable tax credit program, with Oklahoma being unique in terms of its amount and its eligibility.

And also we’re adding a shortened, truncated sort of a program page for Alaska. Alaska has historically had correspondent schools because they’re so remote, because their students have so few options. And it’s not a voucher. It’s not an ESA, it’s some sort of gray murky area. They call it an allotment, but that’s one new page that you’re going to see in the program.

Robert: Yeah, it’s interesting. So with the growth of education savings accounts, with the growth of refundable tax credits as its own category, we’re kind of paying to the conclusion that states with individual deductions, while we’ll list those in the ABCs, they don’t really need their own full program page. We have a ton of states like Indiana, Iowa, and Illinois that just had the individual deductions worth a small amount of money, whether it’s a thousand dollars for Indiana or $500 for Illinois. So we decided to say, you know what? We will list them, but they’re no longer really the kind of choice we’re really talking about here. We’re looking at choice really writ large, and as we look at the programs around the country, we’re looking for universal eligibility, we’re looking for universal uses, and we’re looking for universal funding. So we’re excited by that. Colin, what’s new with the rules and regs? What are we doing there?

Colyn: So the rules and regs from our end, we tackled a lot of new questions with eligibility. We started talking about programs as if they were a family of four. That is what legislators and our state team prefer. So that is something we’ve changed totally. So eligibility got a little bit of a bump because obviously with the assumption of a family of four, that means the income level grew a little bit with the free and reduced lunch and the poverty level rules that are in those income-based eligible programs. So eligibility bumped up a little bit. We also changed the eligibility unit that we measure to just students. So with those programs that require an income limit, we typically have relied on families because that is the only sort of financial data that we can get from census bureaus at the family level, at the state level.

It’s hard to get that at the student level. So we’ve changed that all to students eligible, and we did that with a calculation that’s a little bit more art than science. Sometimes with data collection, especially with eligibility, it can get a little bit tough there. So we are looking forward to that where we’re talking now only students instead of X amount of families eligible versus X amount of students eligible, we just now want to say students eligible. And then also with the data collection process, because we bumped up the timeline a little bit, those tax credit scholarships are not going to be as updated, because the data is just not usually available for those until later in the year, December, January area. So we changed a little bit of our data collection process to reflect this new timeline as well as the eligibility.

Robert: So we’re going to have the most up-to-date numbers that we can and get the numbers online when we get there, when we get all those numbers updated. But just drum roll, Colyn, give us a drum roll. What is the low end of the numbers and what do you think the high end of the numbers are?

Colyn: Yeah, I mean it’s looking really good. ESA, for example, grew. It nearly tripled, and that’s not even counting programs like Arkansas where data is not available just yet because the program is so young. West Virginia, we got updated numbers. Those numbers nearly doubled. We’re still waiting on Utah. Iowa is the biggest one that I’m excited about. That really bumped up the participation. Roughly 19,000 students are participating in the program. That is just absolutely amazing the work that’s been done in Iowa. But we are looking at close to a million students.

I just updated it earlier today. We’re looking at more than 900,000 ESAs, up to over 150,000 students participating. So very exciting news. And that number is only going to grow as we get more data available. With some of the voucher programs, the data’s kind of trickling in as well as the tax credit scholarships. Like I said, those come out later in the year, but we’re anticipating. We’re seeing over 900,000 now. It could be up to a million by the time we get to the final data collection in the spring.

Robert: And if you look at, you said ESAs at 150,000, I assume if you add tax credit ESAs, you’re around 400,000?

Colyn: Yep. If you use tax credit, ESAs, especially with Florida now. And that’s something that we’ve kind of grappled with in the research team, how to split out ESA participation, versus tax grade ESAs, or just to lump them together. But you’re right, Robert, with the Florida inclusion, that’s going to be more than 300,000, close to 400,000.

Robert: So almost 40% of all the scholarships are in Florida around the country. That’s a pretty big state and one in five I understand across the country are now eligible for choice. So I mean, that’s amazing. What’s the next biggest state besides Florida?

Colyn: Ohio is one, obviously with the expansion to the Ohio Educational Choice Scholarship program that we’re very excited about. That voucher program is near universal. Actually, it is universal. Sorry about that. Ohio’s one. Florida. Obviously Arizona. You can’t really talk about modern day school choice, especially universal school choice without mentioning Arizona. They’ve had incredible growth in their ESA program, and then they also have the tax credit scholarships that they update pretty reliably in April. So the reflection in these new ABCs will count the most recent Arizona data, and along with Florida and Ohio are two of the biggest states when it comes to pure participation in choice and eligibility as well.

Robert: Don’t forget our home state of Indiana, which is at 69,000 kids in the voucher program.

Colyn: It is. 69 to 70. The growth there has been amazing. That voucher program has grown exponentially. Indiana in terms of peer diversity of choice too is always up there. How could I forget?

Robert: That’s awesome. So lots of good numbers. Now, Marc, what’s different about the numbers of programs? Let’s go over those. I mean, so we’ve got almost a million kids, students, in the programs now with almost 20 million eligible across the country. This is some of the new data. Tell us more about the actual programs.

Marc: Yeah. So let’s take a look. In 2022, we had 73 total programs. Now keep in mind, we had counted individual tax credit and deductions. We’re no longer counting those. So if you take those out for last year, it’s not 73, it would be 65. So 65 programs in 32 states. And again, counting those individual deductions.

So for 2023’s totals, we’ve got 15 education savings account programs in 13 states. We’ve got 25 voucher programs in 17 states, 26 tax credit scholarship programs in 22, 2 tax credit ESAs with Florida and Missouri, and four refundable tax credits. So the total, we’re talking 32 states plus Washington DC, plus Puerto Rico for 72 total programs.

Robert: So 33 or 32 states?

Marc: It’s 32 states. Kentucky’s no longer included, plus DC plus Puerto Rico. And then we’re adding on Alaska as sort of a program this year as well.

Robert: The 32 states, DC, Puerto Rico, with a little caveat for the Alaska of it all. I get it. I think that’s one of the interesting things about the growth of the ABCs. Back in 2001 school of choice was, “Hey, what’s the voucher programs out there? What’s the tax credit scholarship program?” Now does the state of Alaska that has this correspondence course where public funds go to private schools directly through the hands of parents, does that count as a program? So these definitions are getting certainly interesting and more expansive, which I love. And obviously the big move this year was universality, right? So Marc, talk a little bit about that too.

Marc: Yeah, I mean for me, that’s really what’s exciting here is the growth in states. Seven states added programs this year, and we’re up to 10 states. If we’re talking universal or near universal eligibility, now we’ve got 10 states, whereas before it was Arizona and West Virginia. That really seems to be the trend with new states joining the party and offering either universal ESA, universal vouchers as we’re talking in Ohio, in North Carolina, in Indiana, or a refundable tax credit like Oklahoma has.

Robert: Yeah, some of this conversation about the ESAs will be interesting. So we categorize Iowa as an ESA because that’s the way the bill is categorized, even though it’s for limited uses. So one of the things we need to be thinking about here as a movement is again, universal eligibility, universal uses and universal funding. And so a place like Iowa, which has a great program, it’s a universally eligible, universally funded, limited use ESA. And so that’s interesting about it. We’re excited by that.

Marc: And I think Utah would warrant a similar caveat because it’s capped at $42 million.

Robert: Yeah, so I mean, the question about capping a program at a certain number means you could only have a certain number of kids, which means it can’t be universal for everyone. Hey, Colyn, interesting. Tell me about, did you notice any trends in the regulations in the rural side or any kind of things that popped out at you?

Colyn: So not so much, and I’m sort of adding myself here. We actually grew our research team a little bit and we split the work and it felt very good this year because we could almost focus on one or two things. I admittedly did not work a ton on the rules and regs. But overall, one of the trends, I mean it’s impossible to talk about this version of the ABCs without talking about the push for universal programs in the year of 2023. I mean seven states enacted new programs. Four of the seven were universal.

And to plug our polling a little bit, we do our Schooling in America annual survey each year, and the push and the support for universal is always 15, 20 points higher than means-based choice programs, especially ESAs. So the trend of just states adapting and understanding what their constituents want, and that is universal school choice.

It’s no surprise that states like Arkansas, Utah, Iowa, I saw a poll recently with the governor’s support and favorability, and those states are very high with governors like Kim Reynolds in Iowa. And they spent 2023 and they worked really hard to get universal school choice. And I know it does have some limited uses, but states are showing that these are the programs that their people want. And it’s possible in states like Arkansas, Iowa, Utah. I’m very excited to see what the data comes out. We’ve seen Iowa’s data, the growth has been unbelievable. It has far surpassed what I expected, but I’m very excited to see updated data from Utah and Arkansas, especially when the eligibility truly becomes universal in the next couple of years.

Robert: Yeah. And when you look at that, we call it the EdChoice share, which is what we use from The ABCs of School Choice. So what are the percentages of children in states that are attending schools that are outside of their assigned public district? And that includes magnet schools because we’re sector agnostic here in many ways, charter schools, magnet schools, choice programs, fee-paying private schools and homeschooling. You look at a state like Florida, that’s down to I think 53% only, and say like Indiana, that’s gone from 92 to I think around 79% now. And that doesn’t include all those people who are moving to their district by choice. But we’re saying we’re just looking at all of the choices that people have outside of their assigned district. There’s just massive growth in the sectors outside of the traditional public schools because families are wanting more options. So that’s super interesting.

So look, everyone, if you want to look at The ABCs of School Choice, it’ll be the 2024 edition, which will make it 23. This’ll be 23 editions since 2001 if my math is correct, from a small little booklet to a booklet of over 125 pages or more. We’re excited by the growth. It’ll be online in mid-December, and then print is out as well after that. We’re excited. You can get copies at edchoice.org to order your print copies or talk to any of your state team members or research members. If you want anyone to get you some copies, just ask for it. I’ll leave you guys to have the last word. What is something about The ABC’s of School Choice that you find most valuable for the movement for educational reform?

Marc: Two things. First of all, it’s a unique resource for state advocates and state partners. Nobody has anything that’s as comprehensive and as accurate and as timely as this each year. Wherever I go, I see folks with that purple book in their hand. Or wherever I see op-eds or articles written, typically one of the top links if they’re citing something about state programs, they’re linking to our page. And then just on a personal level with the EdChoice mission of educational freedom and choice for all as the pathway to successful lives and the stronger society.

We were just in Dallas as a team going over our goals for the year. And one of the EdChoice goals was more opportunities for more kids in more places. And as I look at those participation numbers that Colyn pointed out, tripling from last year to this year and probably doing the same or more next year, I see that bearing out in a big way. So it means a lot to me personally to see that.

Colyn: To piggyback on what Marc’s saying, sometimes when we’re reflecting and looking back on the years of the overall school choice movement, and professionally, this is only my third year within EdChoice and advancing this mission that we all love and we all are very passionate about. Sometimes it’s just fun to go look at one of the, I don’t know exactly what page it’ll be in this ABCs, but to pick up that purple book, see one of the first pages. We have a really nice visualization of not just the program count, but also the participation in these programs. And just to see the massive growth, and not only the growth in terms of program counts, but also the types of programs we see.

It obviously started a long time ago with vouchers and now tax credit scholarships are around, and there’s a lot of those. But there’s that pink bar when you open up that graph, you’ll see it, and that’s the ESAs. And that growth has been tremendous. And you’ll see also corresponding with the program participation of the students, just the growth overall, especially since, I mean the growth from 2014 on has been absolutely mind-boggling. And sometimes if I’m ever wondering, what are we here for? What are we doing this for? You can look at that page and I’d push our state partners and everyone, if there’s ever a moment when you’re wondering, what am I doing here? What is this movement really doing? How are we helping kids? These two charts do it for me every time.

And just to imagine the amount of families that that helps and we are going to continue to help, and especially the exciting growth over the last couple of years and what growth we’re expecting in states over the next couple years too. It’s very awesome to reflect and it’s a good-looking picture in many ways.

Robert: It’s amazing. And I couldn’t agree with you more, Colyn, and I really appreciate all your work and all Marc’s work. One of my favorite things about The ABCs of School Choice is it is a unique resource. I guess in 2001, I had this little idea to say, “Hey, let’s put all the programs in one place and see if we can get our vision out there.” And it has grown so amazingly. And to watch in Iowa when Senator Sinclair is up there in the last night holding The ABCs of School Choice, talking with it. Or to watch Chairman Buckley in Texas using The ABCs of School Choice. I’ve got a picture of him right here as he’s looking at that and sort of talking about school choice.

I’m just excited to see the movement and where everything is going. And I think this will be a great resource that we’re going to get out there in December. So it’ll be out in December, online in December 14th, I think, around that time. Again, go to edchoice.org to download your own copy or to ask for copies. And really appreciate you guys being on.

Colyn: I just want to shout out our communications team, because without them, you can only do so much with this book that Marc and I and the teams we’re in putting the information. But to lay it out and to make it as easy to read as possible and to make it just the way it is, we couldn’t do it without the comms team. And we’re very blessed to have the best comms team around because they are fantastic. And nothing we do would be the same without them.

Robert: I couldn’t agree more. I really think they’re amazing. And actually all of our teams, the policy team, the research team, the comms team, everyone is getting it done. And the comms team, particularly with The ABCs of School Choice, they’ve been on it. They make it look great. They make all of our ideas look pretty and look purdy, as we say in the Midwest, right? And so we appreciate that shout out, Colyn. You’re right-on for that. So again, go to edchoice.org to request your copy or talk to your friendly EdChoice rep, and excited to have you get your next copy for next year. And here’s to the next 10 states for universal choice. So thanks for joining us today, and don’t forget to download and get your new copy of The ABCs of School Choice.