Emboldened by frustrations with pandemic-era policies and battles over what schools are teaching, conservative parents and politicians have accelerated a push for school choice policies that would funnel public funds into private schools.
Though school choice has been debated for decades, the movement is in a unique moment as advocates use parent concerns over COVID-era mask requirements; curriculum addressing race, gender, and sexuality; and library book content to bolster their argument that families should have more options outside of traditional public schools. And the school choice proposals states are considering—and, in some cases, have already passed—are more sweeping than previous iterations.
Already this year, lawmakers in at least 11 states—Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia—have introduced and, in some cases, passed school choice bills. Although they vary in scope, many of the bills would establish or expand private school voucher and education savings account programs that give families public funds to pay for tuition at private schools, cover the costs of homeschooling, or pay for other schooling expenses.
The resurgence of school choice action shouldn’t come as a surprise. During the 2022 midterm election cycle, 19 Republican gubernatorial candidates advocated for school choice, mostly in the form of vouchers and education savings accounts, on campaign websites. This year, seven governors so far have talked about school choice policies in their state of the state addresses, according to the Education Commission of the States.
The policies are a result of parents’ declining satisfaction with schools following the pandemic, said Jonathan Butcher, an education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that advocates for school choice policies.
“Public schools lost track of tens of thousands of kids. And, in some places … the unions were able to keep those schools closed to in-person learning even when district officials were saying they wanted teachers to come back for in-person learning,” Butcher said. “I don’t think that was lost on [parents].”
But while supporters view the policies as a key to unlocking academic opportunities for students, opponents worry they threaten public schools’ ability to operate.
Where politicians are supporting school choice
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have some sort of policy on the books supporting school choice, including tax credits for parents who switch to different schools, private school scholarship programs, and education savings accounts, according to EdChoice, a nonprofit that tracks school choice.
Of those states, eight have education savings accounts, in which the state gives eligible families a set amount of public funds to cover school-related costs, including private school, online learning, tutoring, community college, and college expenses. Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have voucher programs, which are often branded as scholarships, giving students all or part of their public per-pupil funding to pay for private school, according to EdChoice.
Soon, Iowa and Utah are expected to join that list after both states’ legislatures passed bills establishing education savings account programs this week, which was also National School Choice Week. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill that would give families up to $7,598 each for an education savings account for private school tuition, the Des Moines Register reported. The policy would cost $345 million annually after being phased in over the next five years.
In Utah, a bill that passed both chambers of the legislature would allow up to 5,000 students to access $42 million in taxpayer-funded scholarships to attend private schools. The legislation awaits a signature from Gov. Spencer Cox, who has signaled his support, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
There’s been action on the federal level, too. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, recently reintroduced the Children Have Opportunities in Classrooms Everywhere, or CHOICE, Act, which would deposit Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds into education savings accounts for private schools, virtual learning, tutoring, homeschooling, therapy services, and more.
How school choice bills work
While they can take many different forms and have different names, education savings accounts and vouchers are both ultimately designed to allow families to use funds that would otherwise go to public schools to enroll their children in private schools, said Douglas Harris, director of the Center for Research on Education Access and Choice at Tulane University.
Savings accounts typically include a smaller amount of money to support educational expenses while vouchers give students a large portion or the entire amount of their per-pupil funding to cover private school costs. But now those lines are getting increasingly blurred, Harris said.
For example, the Utah bill is effectively a voucher program, but lawmakers have avoided using that term.
“The term ‘vouchers’ doesn’t poll very well,” Harris said. “But there’s no savings element to [the Utah bill]. It’s not designed for small things; it’s designed to be enough to send students to [private] school. So they’re just changing the name to make it sound better.”
The pro-school choice argument is that more options give students the chance to find an educational experience that best suits them.
“Education savings accounts are the future of learning in the United States because it allows families to find a set of education services that meet their child’s needs,” Butcher said. “We’re not just shifting all of our options into one singular solution, we’re actually opening up all of the available [options] to families with these accounts.”
Concerns mount that bills will hurt public schools
All the measures come with criticism from public school advocates, including teachers’ unions and school board associations, who say they’ll drain public schools of resources by pushing students out. The Utah Education Association vowed to fight the state’s scholarship bill after the legislature passed it this week.
“Lawmakers should focus on providing solutions to our public schools’ most urgent needs, like large class sizes, increased student behavior issues, and severe staffing shortages,” the union’s president, Renee Pinkney, said in a statement. “A voucher bill does nothing to support educators and public schools.”
Until now, school choice programs have mostly been too small to have much of an impact on traditional public schools, but as states pass more sweeping school choice policies, there is a concern that lawmakers are starting down “a slippery slope,” Harris said.
“If you make these programs big and lots of people start to use them, then you start pulling out so many families that that ultimately undermines the traditional public schools, and that’s probably right,” he said.
The impact could be especially significant on rural schools with small enrollments. In those communities, it wouldn’t take the departure of many students to have a major effect on a school’s ability to function. The policies are also harder to sell in rural areas, even among conservative voters, because of concerns about how they’ll change community culture and climate if students leave local schools.
“Public schools are really a center of life in a rural town,” Harris said. “If you get rid of Friday night lights, you’ve got a problem.”