Talk to any parent of school-age children, and you’ve no doubt heard about the difficult experience they’ve had with educating their child during the pandemic.
A year of virtual education, learning loss, and prolonged school closures has left parents and their children anxious and frustrated. But it has also led to a growing appetite for more education alternatives. According to polling from Heart+Mind Strategies, nearly half of Americans favor an approach to education where public school is not the only option.
State policymakers across the country are taking note.
During this year’s legislative sessions, several states have passed laws that empower parents to make the best education choices for their children—whether that’s a public, private, or home school. From creating Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to expanding education tax-credit programs to reopening schools, state policy organizations are working to put the interests of American families first.
Take a look below at all the education reforms passed during the 2021 state legislative sessions.
Arkansas passed a law that provides scholarships for around 250 students whose family income is less than or equal to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Individuals and corporations are eligible to receive tax credits by donating to organizations that fund these scholarships. The Arkansas Policy Foundation has been raising awareness in the state on the growth of Arkansas’ school choice market and how this bill will help Arkansas families. Greg Kaza, executive director of the Foundation, noted: “Arkansas’ education monopoly forces some children—except those whose parents have wealth—to attend bad schools. This measure levels the playing field by giving parents and guardians resources to choose a better school for their children.”
There’s going to be a school choice initiative on the California ballot in November 2022. The California Policy Center noted that while this is not an absolute certainty, the grassroots support for school choice is strong, and the infrastructure necessary to nurture a grassroots effort is now in place.
The Florida Governor signed legislation that vastly expands the state’s need-based and special needs scholarships so that more children will have access to educational options. The American Federation for Children noted the new law will be a lifesaver for families looking for other options for their children’s K-12 grade educational experiences.
The James Madison Institute noted the new law improves Florida’s school choice scholarship programs and simplifies the application process for thousands of Florida families. JMI also added this measure would consolidate five different K-12 scholarship programs into two, making the application process easier for thousands of Florida families with school-aged children. Additionally, the legislation gives families more flexibility in how they can spend the scholarship money.
Georgia became the first state in the nation to ensure families could continue to participate in learning pods—an innovative education option that exploded in popularity during the pandemic. A learning pod is a small group of children who come together to learn and socialize. Thousands of American students participated in learning pods last year. But as pods became more popular, some policymakers began to issue new regulations for pod operations—potentially limiting the size of pods or slowing pod growth.State policy organizations across the country raised awareness on this issue and worked to ensure American families could continue to access this education method.
Thanks to the efforts of the Georgia Center for Opportunity and Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia passed the Learning Pods Protection Act, which ensures learning pods will be protected against overregulation. The Act defines a learning pod in state law and clarifies pods are not schools—so they cannot be regulated as such. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation noted that by ensuring that this innovative, flexible approach will remain unregulated, lawmakers are ensuring Georgia’s families will have options when they need them most.
But Georgia didn’t stop with learning pods. The Peach State also expanded its special needs scholarships program—which provides vouchers to parents with disabled children who are unhappy with their public school to attend private school. The legislation allows more children with physical or learning disabilities to participate in the program. The American Federation for Children pointed out this will expand the number of children who qualify for the program by 50,000 or more.GCO noted this is an important way to serve Georgia families and the special-needs community, as many of these students have been left behind due to school closures, learning loss, and lack of access to crucial therapies. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation highlighted how this is a win for Georgia’s children.
Finally, Georgia passed a law that boosts funding for the state’s charter schools. The measure will increase spending by around $100 per charter school student.
Indiana created an Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program for students with special needs. This is the first ESA program in the Hoosier State, and it gives families with special needs children a portion of the money that would normally be used on attending the child’s public school to pay for tuition at a private school or on other education-related expenses.
In addition, Indiana expanded its Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, a program that gives students who meet a certain income level vouchers to attend private schools. EdChoice noted that the expansion will allow almost all of the state’s middle-class families to have access to the program.
Early on in Iowa’s legislative session, the Iowa Legislature passed a law that stated all Iowa students, starting in February 2021, would have the opportunity to attend school 100 percent in person. This was especially helpful for many Iowa parents who were growing frustrated with virtual learning and children who were falling behind academically.
Iowa also passed several bills that not only expand school choice in the state but also placed the interests of students first. The Tax Education Foundation of Iowa explained some of the key measures, including expanding charter schools, increasing the Tuition and Textbook tax credit, and increasing the School Tuition Organization tax credit to $20 million.
Another important education option for parents is allowing them to send their child to another school district, a policy called open enrollment. Five Iowa school districts, however, had something called voluntary diversity plans in place—which is a barrier to open enrollment. As TEF Iowa points out, the policy was put in place to maintain a diverse student population by overseeing who can move to another school district. To ensure parents are able to send their child to another school district, Iowa also passed a law that ends these voluntary diversity plans in public schools, effectively expanding open enrollment to every school district in the state. TEF Iowa also noted this means more than 58,000 students, based on 2019 enrollment, will now have less restrictions to enroll into a better school.
TEF Iowa thanked policymakers for passing these reforms and putting students first in Iowa.
Kansas expanded its Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program, which provides tax credits to individuals and businesses that donate to nonprofits who grant scholarships to students to attend private school. The Kansas Policy Institute noted that educational choice policies like these are a constitutionally sound method to expand educational opportunities and foster academic excellence.
The Kentucky Legislature passed school choice legislation that creates a scholarship tax credit and, separately, allows state funds to follow students outside of their district. This was the first time the Legislature had ever introduced—let alone passed—a parental choice bill. This has been a priority for the Bluegrass Institute, which noted the bill helps refocus Kentucky’s education policy on meeting the needs of children by empowering their parents with meaningful alternatives. Although the Kentucky Governor vetoed this historic school choice legislation, Kentucky lawmakers overrode that veto.
Specifically, the bill creates a $25 million tax credit ESA program which gives parents money for education expenses—including private school tuition, textbooks, or tutoring. The legislation also offers parents the opportunity to enroll their child in a public school district different than the one where they reside. Additionally, the bill allows students participating in education pods to be eligible to receive grants to pay for expenses related to pod learning. The Bluegrass Institute celebrated the bill and praised lawmakers for recognizing that no child should be denied a better public education just because they don’t live in a good school district.
Missouri passed a law that creates the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program.” The program allows donors to give money to nonprofits that in turn provide scholarships to low-income families and students with disabilities for education-related expenses, including private school tuition. The Show-Me Institute has been working for years to encourage lawmakers to fund students instead of systems. Show-Me noted this is great news for Missouri students.
Montana passed a law that expands the state’s tax credit program that funds scholarships for private school students. The new law increases the income tax credit cap from $150 to $200,000 per year.
Oklahoma passed legislation that increases the size of the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act—a program that provides tax credits to those who donate to organizations that provide private school scholarships. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs noted the beneficiaries of the program include students previously trapped in schools that produce poor academic outcomes, students attending “sober school” while recovering from addiction, children recovering from trauma and abuse, and homeless students. OCPA celebrated the passage of this bill, declaring 2021 the “year of Oklahoma’s education turnaround” during a press conference.
In addition, the Oklahoma Governor signed legislation that would reduce payments to schools for students they do not teach. Under current law, state funding for schools can be based on the highest enrollment figure from the current year or the prior two years. That allows districts with declining enrollment to continue receiving payments for departed students, a practice informally known as “ghost student” funding since the students do not exist in those districts. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs has been raising awareness on this issue and pointed out the state’s school districts receive nearly $200 million for these “ghost students.”
Texas followed Georgia’s lead and passed a law that protects the state’s learning pods from overregulation.
Thanks to the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, West Virginia passed the most expansive and inclusive school choice program in the nation. Also called the Hope Scholarship, the program is essentially an Education Savings Account (ESA), or state-supervised funds that parents can use to pay for a wide variety of education options. The Hope Scholarship provides eligible West Virginia families with $4,600 per year to pay for private school tuition, curriculum, special needs therapy, transportation, and more.
Initially, the program is for students who have been enrolled in public school for a minimum of 45 calendar days or who are kindergarten age for the 2022-2023 school year. In 2027, the program could open up to all West Virginia students, regardless of their schooling type.
Cardinal’s Executive Director, Garrett Ballengee, added: “West Virginia has finally set a gold standard for other states to emulate should those states desire to pursue an education system focused on children first. Bold solutions and big ideas have finally come to West Virginia.” With the Hope Scholarship in hand, West Virginia parents will be empowered to send their children to a school where they have the best chance to succeed.
The West Virginia Legislature also passed a law to allow fully online charter schools to operate in the state.