Funding Education Opportunity: School choice laws advance in five more states
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Funding Education Opportunity Newsletter

Funding Education Opportunity: School choice laws advance in five more states

Plus: Lawsuits in multiple states, Republican primary elections likely impact on school choice in Texas, and more.

Last year, 14 states signed 16 strong public and private school choice proposals into law, making it the year of universal choice. Yet policymakers are continuing this trend in 2024, as five state legislatures have advanced strong private school choice proposals so far. Notably, one of these proposals, Alabama’s CHOOSE Act, was into law, expanding the number of universal or near-universal private school choice laws to 11

While strong school choice laws ensure that students can attend the school they choose free of charge, accessibility often remains a problem. Some states’ solution is mandating that districts transport private school kids rather than giving parents options to receive transportation funding. Consequently, the transportation provided often doesn’t meet students’ needs. For instance, some states limit transportation to the area inside district boundaries or only provide it along existing bus routes.

Similarly, cross-district transfer students using open enrollment are not guaranteed transportation to their new school. In some cases, such as Colorado, state law lets school districts prohibit other districts from transporting transfer students across their boundaries.

Many families are willing to drive their children to schools that are a better fit. In fact, a new EdChoice report by Mike McShane reviewed polling data from a representative sample of more than 1,500 parents. Notably, 29% of respondents said they were willing to drive up to 20 minutes and 24% said they were willing to drive 30 minutes so their children could attend a school that was the right fit. Only four percent of parents said they would drive for no more than five minutes. 

Unfortunately, not all students’ families can afford to provide their own transportation to the school that’s best for them. Some states, such as Florida, try to address this disparity by letting parents use their child’s education savings account to pay for eligible transportation costs. Similarly, in Wisconsin, the state can reimburse parents of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch up to $1,218.54 in mileage expenses. 

During the 2024 legislative session, both Florida chambers passed House Bill 5101, establishing a travel stipend for K-8 students attending a Florida public school other than their residentially assigned one. 

Other states are also trying to eliminate barriers and make schools accessible to students. For instance, the Iowa House passed House File 2278, which would let receiving school districts travel two miles into other school districts to transport transfer students. 

In Idaho, policymakers introduced H.B. 447, which aimed to establish a refundable tax credit valued up to $5,000 that parents could use to pay for transportation to a non-public school.

The proposals aren’t perfect, but they are steps in the right direction that make schools more accessible to students. As robust school choice policies become more common, policymakers need to reconsider traditional transportation models used in K-12 education and explore innovative options.

From the states

In other important education and school choice developments across the country, Alabama policymakers passed a major education savings account proposal, Tennessee’s Education Freedom Scholarship Act made legislative headway, and the Wyoming legislature passed an income-based ESA.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the CHOOSE Act into law, establishing education savings accounts (ESAs) valued at $7,000 per student. Eligible students are supposed to gain access to these funds in 2025 and can use them to pay for approved education expenses, such as private school tuition. According to the bill, all Alabama students should become eligible to receive an ESA at the beginning of the 2027-28 school year. 

In Tennessee, the Education Freedom Scholarship Act, which would establish a private school scholarship that could be used to pay for private school tuition, was approved by the state Senate’s education committee. The companion bill in the House was approved by the House Education Administration Committee. If signed into law, the proposal would provide 20,000 students with scholarships. Gov. Bill Lee said he supports the proposal.

The Wyoming legislature approved H.B. 116 which would establish education savings accounts. All students can apply for scholarships, but the amounts are based on families’ income. NextSteps’ Travis Pillow reported that students whose families income is 150% of the federal poverty level would be eligible for scholarships valued at $6,000, while students from families whose income was 500% of the federal poverty level would be eligible for scholarships valued at $600.

A constitutional amendment aiming to make private school choice laws constitutional was approved by the Kentucky House and Senate last week. This amendment is needed because the  Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the state’s tax-credit scholarship as unconstitutional in 2022. The amendment will be included on the November ballot for voter ratification. Gov. Andy Beshear said he does not support the amendment.

The Idaho House Revenue and Taxation Committee killed a proposal to establish tax-credit scholarships, valued at $5,000 per student, which families could’ve used to pay for private school tuition. 

In Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed H.B. 1380, which prohibits public schools from charging tuition to transfer students using open enrollment. 

The Georgia House passed Senate Bill 233, which would establish the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act to provide $6,500 scholarships to eligible students. Scholarship recipients could use them to pay private school tuition or other approved education expenses. The bill has the support of Gov. Brian Kemp but must return to the Senate for concurrence. 

What to watch

Texas voters supported several school choice candidates on Super Tuesday. After some Texas Republicans, who control the state legislature and every statewide office, partnered with Democrats to block school choice proposals last year, Gov. Greg Abbott only supported Republicans for reelection who supported school choice. The governor’s efforts against sitting legislators in his own party paid off as 10 of the 21 Republicans who opposed his school choice proposals lost GOP primary elections or now face run-off elections. 

The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the constitutionality of the state’s Education Scholarship Trust Fund Program signed into law last year. The program provides scholarships, valued at up to $6,000, to eligible students to pay for approved education expenses, such as private school tuition, fees, and therapy. Yet, opponents of the program claim that it violates the state constitution by providing funds that directly benefit religious or other private schools. Despite the court challenge, state policymakers have already introduced a new proposal to expand student eligibility.

Recommended reading 

States are Bad at Giving Teachers Raises
Christian Barnard at Education Next

“But for legislators hoping to improve teacher pay and attract more people to the profession, increasing education spending is surprisingly ineffective. Data published in Reason Foundation’s new study, Public Education at a Crossroads, indicates that states do a poor job of translating additional education investments into higher teacher salaries. Many states have lost ground on average teacher salaries over the past two decades despite spending more.”

Rural Republicans Embrace School Choice
Corey DeAngelis in The Wall Street Journal

“Rural red-state Republicans, backed by teachers unions, have long opposed school choice. They say their constituents don’t want it because there aren’t many private schools in their districts. Yet the nine most rural states in the country (as measured by population share) now have some form of private school choice.” 

School Boards Face Their Most Difficult Budget Season Ever. Many Are Unprepared
Marguerite Roza and Laura Anderson at The74

“Too often, we’re finding that the majority of trustees in these meetings aren’t engaging on budget discussions beyond a generic ‘let’s protect students and classrooms’ statement or a “hearty thanks to the CFO for the presentation.” Too rarely do trustees investigate different budget options, weigh tradeoffs or explore expected impacts using student data.”