Funding Education Opportunity: Seeking better schools lands parents in jail, school choice growth, and more
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Funding Education Opportunity Newsletter

Funding Education Opportunity: Seeking better schools lands parents in jail, school choice growth, and more

Plus: Oklahoma tax credits for private and homeschooled students, Alabama's push for education savings accounts, and more.

Good morning,

As the school year begins in many districts, 78% of parents sending their children to traditional public schools say they are satisfied with their children’s schools, while 12% say they are not, according to a July 2023 Morning Consult-EdChoice survey. Some families increase the likelihood of their satisfaction by paying for private school or purchasing an expensive mortgage for a home zoned to a good public school. But not all families can afford to move near the public school of their choice or pay private school tuition. 

Moreover, transferring to other public schools can be shockingly expensive because 24 states don’t prohibit public school districts from charging tuition to students who don’t live within their boundaries. Sometimes this public school tuition can cost as much as $20,200, as it does in Pelham Public Schools in Pelham, New York. In some cases, such as Virginia, public school transfer tuition can cost more than a state’s average private school tuition

Despite important gains in school choice, today, only a handful of states provide universal private school scholarships, and only 16 states have robust open enrollment options, which allow kids to move freely to other public schools. As a result, dissatisfied parents sometimes pursue the risky path of address sharing—often using a friend or relative’s address to claim they reside inside a school zone other than their assigned school in order to gain access to better public schools. But at least 24 states and the District of Columbia criminalize this practice, according to a new report by Available to All’s Tim DeRoche and Bellwether’s Hailly T.N. Korman and Harold Hinds.

These laws can have life-shattering consequences for parents who falsify their addresses in search of better public schools for their kids. In fact, six states classify address sharing as a felony. Parents caught address sharing in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Iowa, or New York can face five-to-10 years in prison.

In 2011, Kelley Williams-Bolar received two concurrent five-year prison sentences, later suspended to 10 days, for claiming her father’s address as her own so she wouldn’t have to send her children to their dangerous assigned school in Ohio.  

A New York mom, Yolanda Miranda, was arrested for “grand larceny” after using her mother’s address so Miranda’s daughter could enroll in a better public school. Miranda’s charges were later reduced to a misdemeanor, but she ultimately transferred custody of her daughter to her mother to ensure that her daughter could access a school that was the right fit.

In 2018, WHYY reported that hundreds of students a year are kicked out of Philadelphia’s suburban school districts for address sharing. Despite the risks of address sharing, many parents believe that the benefits their children gain from better schools are worth it. 

But schools are also seeking monetary punishments. The Chicago Public Schools is seeking more than $56,000 it says represents three years of tuition costs from a family that lied about their residency to attend one of the district’s better schools. 

Unsurprisingly, these enforcement actions don’t stop many parents from seeking better educations for their kids. Students shouldn’t be locked into a system that relegates so many to failing neighborhood schools, schools where they’re bullied or bad fits, or that forces them to change schools if their parents have to move homes. 

Address sharing also raises questions that might make some school districts uncomfortable. Why can school districts claim to be at “full capacity” but suddenly have available seats if a student moves inside its boundaries? Why are the number of available seats reduced when a student is kicked out for address sharing or moving to a new address

The fact that school districts often accommodate students through address sharing, albeit unwittingly, indicates that their available capacity is more flexible than some district administrators care to admit. Codifying standardized definitions of capacity and randomized audits are key to better transparency. 

Transparent reports combined with student-centered reforms, such as robust open enrollment, can help students attend schools that are the right fit for them. Open enrollment would allow kids to attend any public school with an open seat, force public schools to improve and compete for students, and remove criminality from parents looking to enroll their kids in better public schools. 

From the states

School Choice programs are seeing significant participation growth in several states.

The Iowa Department of Education approved more than 18,600 education savings accounts valued at about $7,600 each. Scholarship recipients reside in 97% of Iowa’s counties, showing broad interest from rural and urban families. The Department of Education also announced that approximately 60% of scholarship recipients were already private school students, and 40% of recipients would be students transferring from public schools.

Indiana experienced its most significant uptick, 20 percent, in voucher use, as 53,000 new families participated in the program during the 2022-23 school year.

Approximately 5,000 Arkansas students applied for the state’s new Educational Freedom Accounts (EFA). Eligible students can use their accounts to pay for about $6,600 in approved education expenses. As of Aug. 4, more than 85% of EFA applications had been approved.

Florida school choice policies experienced significant growth for the 2023-24 school year compared to the 2022-23 school year. The state’s tax-credit scholarship program awarded more than 54,500 new scholarships, an increase of more than 53%. At the same time, the Florida Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) for Educational Opportunities provided scholarships to nearly 49,000 new recipients, increasing participation by 54%. Lastly, FES for Unique Abilities provided approximately 9,000 new scholarships. 

In preparation for the upcoming special session, the Texas House Committee released a new report to the state legislature suggesting watered-down school choice proposals. Instead of the universal education savings accounts supported by Gov. Greg Abbott and the Senate chamber earlier this year, the committee proposed a limited pilot program. The governor, however, has threatened to veto any non-universal school choice proposals. 

What to watch

Oklahoma tax credits will be available to private and homeschooled students in January 2024. Depending on an Oklahoma student’s family income, some are eligible to receive $5,000-$7,000 for private school expenses. Homeschool families can also claim up to $1,000 in education expenses. Eligible expenses include tuition, textbooks, curriculum, and tutoring. However, the total tax-credit amount is capped at $150 million for the 2024 tax year, expanding to $200 million and $250 million in 2025 and 2026, respectively. Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Tax Commission released a frequently asked questions document on how families can apply for the tax-credit scholarship.

In light of Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s push for education savings accounts (ESAs) in the 2024 legislative session, Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth says he’s confident the state will pass an ESA law. “Even people that are opposed to school choice say it’s coming,” Ainsworth stated. “They’ll try to water it down. They’ll try to dilute it. They’ll try to maybe kill it behind the scenes, but we’re not going to let them.”

Reason’s recent education work

The conservative case for public school open enrollment
Aaron Garth Smith and Jude Schwalbach at American Enterprise Institute

“The vast majority of students nationwide (84 percent) still attend traditional public schools—and will for the foreseeable future. Conservatives would be wise to support policies that give families choice within the public education system. Cross-district open enrollment does precisely that, and it has strong bipartisan support.”

The progressive case for K–12 open enrollment
Aaron Smith at Education Next

“In total, nearly 95% of Republican and 82% of Democratic votes across four red states—Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia—were cast in favor of public school choice. West Virginia’s House Bill 2596 passed unanimously in both of the state’s legislative chambers. Only in North Dakota did a majority of Democrats in either chamber vote against the measure… Although Democrats and teachers’ unions often fear that school choice will undermine public schools, open enrollment can clearly make public schools stronger.”

Do you think your state has K-12 open enrollment? You might be wrong.
Jude Schwalbach at Reason Foundation

“Only 16 states have inclusive open enrollment policies that require all school districts to participate so long as they have available capacity. Just this year, five states–Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia–significantly improved their open enrollment laws, making their policies mandatory for all school districts.”

Recommended reading 

Millions of kids are missing weeks of school as attendance tanks across the U.S.
Bianca Vázquez Toness at Associated Press

“Across the country, students have been absent at record rates since schools reopened during the pandemic. According to the most recent data, more than a quarter of students missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year, making them chronically absent. Before the pandemic, only 15% of students missed that much school.”

As more states enact education savings accounts, implementation challenges abound
Caroline Hendrie at Education Next

“The tension between ease of use for families and accountability for the governance of taxpayer funds resists simple solutions. The problem of defining—and policing—questionable expenses by families may spark both administrative confusion and contentious political debate. And scaling up programs that were manageable when smaller poses a major challenge—not only for administrators but also for the public they serve.”

There’s a lot at stake for districts and kids when under-enrolled schools stay open
Chad Aldeman at The74

“The surge in budgets over the last few years represents a lost opportunity for districts to right-size their physical footprints. It would have been wise to use the federal funds to soften the blows and create supports for displaced students while the money was there. By putting off those decisions, districts will likely have to close many more schools in the years to come, after the one-time money runs out.”