State Policy Network
Spotlight on state legislative sessions: State think tanks working to improve education for students and their families

Parents want education solutions. A year of school closures, online learning, and a lack of social interaction for their kids have left them stressed and anxious. It has left their children overwhelmed and behind academically. Americans want a fundamental change in education, but who can they turn to for answers?

Thankfully, there’s a powerful Network of policy organizations working at the state and local level to improve schooling so all American children have access to the quality education they deserve.

Their work is paying off. Parental choice is gaining momentum in states across the country. In Arizona, state senators passed legislation that would extend eligibility for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to low-income students throughout the state. In Georgia, lawmakers introduced a bill that could help expand support for parents of special needs students. The Iowa Senate passed a bill that would create independent charter schools, expand open enrollment, and create voucher-style scholarships. And the Illinois Legislature is working on legislation that could ensure more education dollars in Illinois are spent on students, teachers, and classrooms rather than administration.

As state legislative sessions continue, there’s likely more to come. Below is a snapshot of what state think tanks are working on to improve education for families in their state.

Alaska

As businesses struggled to stay open in 2020, Alaska’s students struggled to continue learning. When in-person schooling stopped without warning, many children were left without clear guidance or a stable routine. Alaska’s fourth graders already had the lowest reading proficiency in the country and, without consistent instruction, they have fallen further behind. During the 2021 legislative session, the Alaska Policy Forum is working to advance policy reforms that ensure third graders are prepared to graduate from learning to read and move on to reading to learn as they enter fourth grade and approach new subjects.

Arizona

The Goldwater Institute pioneered Arizona’s ESA program in 2011, which gives parents a portion of the funds that would have been spent covering the costs of their student’s education in a public school and allows them to instead use it to meet their child’s unique education needs—whether that’s homeschool expenses, private school tuition, or even tutors for learning pods. In February 2021, state senators passed a bill that would extend eligibility for this program to low-income students throughout the state. Goldwater noted Arizona is moving closer to giving education options to more families.

As the pandemic has pushed millions of children into virtual learning, parents have had more transparency into the educational environment than ever before. Many have observed politicized curriculum and are demanding accountability from educators. 

To that end, Goldwater is also working on reforms focused on academic transparency that seek to empower parents with the information they need to make decisions about their children’s education and to ensure educators provide ongoing visibility into the classroom.

California

This legislative session, California Policy Center is focusing on reopening schools given the documented pain caused by classroom closures for little-to-no gain in coronavirus safety. Specifically, CPC is encouraging fed-up parents to pursue their educational choices, including charter schools that are more likely to reopen because they generally aren’t beholden to teachers and districts that refuse to return. CPC is making this case through original research showing the outperformance of charter schools, op-eds, and grassroots organizing through the Parent Union project—a group of parents that unite with community members to ensure that all students receive an outstanding public education, regardless of their Zip code.

At a time when families need more educational options, many states are creating barriers to the establishment of charter schools. In a new issue brief, Lance Izumi, senior director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Center of Education, highlights these policy challenges, and research showing how charter schools have more effectively transitioned to virtual learning during the pandemic.

Colorado

The Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center launched new resources to supplement remote learning or to help students who have academically fallen behind. These included adding hundreds of enrichment activities to SchoolChoiceforKids.org to assist parents as they juggle work with their children’s schooling. In addition, offered in both English and Spanish, a new page called Rethinking Education informs parents about learning pods, microschools, and other educational options.

Connecticut

The Yankee Institute for Public Policy’s top issue this legislative session is an educational access and opportunity scholarship. This program would support nonprofits that provide innovation grants to public schools, transportation assistance to students choosing alternative public schools, tutoring, online learning, school supplies, and reimbursement for homeschooling expenses. The overarching goal is to ensure Connecticut students have access to the educational tools and environment that offer the best opportunities to succeed. 

School shutdowns and remote learning have put a renewed emphasis on innovation in education. Importantly, suburban families in even the highest-ranking school districts are paying more attention to education issues than ever before. Although Connecticut has never instituted any major education choice programs, Yankee Institute is excited by the renewed opportunity for change.

Georgia

Georgia’s governor has already set aside federal funds to help students with special needs receive reimbursements for the additional costs incurred during the pandemic. The Georgia Center for Opportunity is assisting directly with the promotion and distribution processes for these funds to ensure that the students with the most need receive them. In the upcoming session, the legislature will consider a new educational savings account bill that is likely to gain traction as more parents explore education options for their children. The Center is not only educating people on this bill’s benefits for those in poverty but is also sharing stories of parents and students from all walks of life on how such a bill could change their child’s future. In addition, GCO recently celebrated legislation that could help expand support for parents of special needs students.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is working to highlight education innovations and expand existing options for Georgia families. This includes learning pods and education savings accounts.

Iowa

Tax Education Foundation of Iowa is working to advance parental school choice. In 2020, TEF Iowa met with several state legislators as well as the Iowa Governor’s policy staff to discuss school choice policy. TEF Iowa is working on school choice reform that strengthens open enrollment and creates an Education Savings Account (ESA) program.

Kansas

This year, in addition to encouraging discourse on the way the problems are approached, Kansas Policy Institute is paving the way for student-focused legislation that forces accountability in K-12 education. Money gets all of the attention in Topeka, but low student achievement is the real education crisis.  

Spending increased far beyond inflation over the last twenty years but reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is relatively flat, at best, and reflect staggering achievement gaps between low-income students and their peers.

KPI is working with state lawmakers on accountability reforms in schools by encouraging “money-follow-the child” programs for students below grade level on the state assessment. KPI is also promoting transparency by laying the groundwork for the state to implement A-F grading for all public schools in Kansas.

Louisiana

The Pelican Institute for Public Policy is working on several legislative items to lay the groundwork for significant education reforms in Louisiana. Pelican is encouraging Louisiana lawmakers to take major steps toward empowering families with options to pursue an educational opportunity that works for them. 

That’s why the Pelican Institute released the comprehensive policy roadmap to expand school choice programs in Louisiana last fall. From expanding virtual charters to implementing education savings accounts to encouraging the institution of micro/pod schools, there are many solutions on the table to empower Louisiana families to find schools that fit their needs.

Massachusetts

At a time when Catholic secondary schools are closing all across the country, the Pioneer Institute’s new book A Vison of Hope: Catholic Schooling in Massachusetts reviews the successes of this education model in the Massachusetts. The book also offers recommendations to help these schools and others increase student enrollment. The book contends that Catholic schools in Massachusetts and across the country must focus on the characteristics that make them academically successful and distinguish them from traditional public schools, but must also seek new models and governance structures that will help them achieve financial sustainability.

Michigan

As a result of school shutdowns, some parents started using “pod”-style learning. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy will continue furthering policies that help parents and students access educational options that work best for them, including pod learning.

Minnesota

What should students know about history, geography, civics, and economics? That’s the focus of a state committee writing academic standards for social studies—and improving their first draft is the focus of Center of the American Experiment in early 2021. Not surprisingly, the draft leaves out historically important topics like the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Holocaust in favor of today’s political correctness known as “equity.” The Center’s call to action delivered over 5,000 public comments on the first draft, and it plans to monitor and comment on future drafts on behalf of Minnesota students who need to learn history.

Mississippi

Empower Mississippi is promoting education reforms that will create a full-time, tuition-free online school and provide more local control for school districts. Empower recently signaled their support for a bill that would establish a virtual public school pilot program for Mississippi students. Empower also supports a bill that would require the Department of Education to grant licenses to out-of-state teachers who obtained a license in another state.

Missouri

The Show-Me Institute’s biggest priority for the 2021 legislative session is making a variety of high-quality education options available to Missouri families. The experience of schooling in 2020 laid bare for many families just how inadequate the traditional public schooling model is for many. The confusing patchwork of in-person schooling, remote schooling, and often-pricey private supplemental options was a nightmare for many families to navigate. Many traditional public schools didn’t, or simply couldn’t, provide what the families in their districts needed. One-size-fits-all does not work in education. Parents should be able to use public funds to enroll their children in a charter school, a private school, a microschool, or a virtual school. They should also be able to access public funds to get the tutoring or educational therapies their children need. If Missouri wants to attract families and businesses, it needs to create a system of education that reflects current and future conditions, not the past.

New Hampshire

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy is making a big push this year to explain the benefits of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). In a recent article, the Center explained what ESAs are and how they work. The Center noted ESAs allow families to shop for a better education fit—with the state still maintaining oversight of the money.

Ohio

Ohio has an opportunity to give parents the resources they need to ensure their children are getting the best education for them to succeed. The Buckeye Institute is working with parents and advocates to expand parental choice and ensure Ohio students are well prepared for college, career, and real life.


Oklahoma

The pandemic has forced states to rethink education policy, and for Oklahoma, that means implementing school choice for all who want it. Currently, Oklahoma has multiple voucher programs that have put limits on spending and choice for parents. Universal school choice would remove those limitations, allow the money to follow the student, and give parents the power to choose the best schools for their children. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs is working to advance school choice policies in the upcoming legislative session.

South Carolina

In 2021, the Palmetto Promise Institute will seize the coronavirus moment to deliver the hope of greater education choice to South Carolina families. This effort must be built on the foundation of comprehensive and trustworthy data. PPI recently unveiled South Carolina’s first-of-its-kind data tool to compare key education metrics across the entire state and by individual school district. The simple, interactive resource pulls together publicly reported data from across state agencies to present a coherent, digestible snapshot of how current education spending lines up with student performance.

With this tool, South Carolinians are equipped to get a clear picture of how their tax dollars are being spent. Among other things, it underlines a conclusion that previous PPI research found: the Palmetto State’s educational expenditures do not directly equate to successful educational outcomes. K–12 education represents 40 percent of South Carolina’s general fund appropriations—the largest single category—yet only a handful of people could tell you how much the state spends, or more to the point, how it is spent. That must change if South Carolina is ever to deliver effective education opportunity for every student, regardless of their income or zip code.


Utah

Sutherland Institute is working to restore complete, accurate, and comprehensive civics curriculum to Utah public schools. During the 2021 legislative session, Sutherland will assist in the passage of a resolution to emphasize critical thinking and citizenship skills along with a bill that will create curriculum transparency in K–12 school learning materials so parents can make informed decisions about their student’s education.

West Virginia

The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy is working alongside partners to educate the public on the importance of education choice and to advocate for more parent empowerment in education. The school lockdowns of 2020 demonstrated the urgent need to reimagine education in West Virginia. As public schools pivoted to remote learning, over 9,300 West Virginia families fled the system in search of something better. As the debate about how to safely and sensibly reopen schools rages on, the Institute is working to ensure that every family in every community is empowered with the resources they need to educate their children

Vermont

A number of lawsuits are in the works in Vermont that have the potential to vastly expand school choice in the state and possibly at the national level. In recent commentary, the Ethan Allen Institute noted Vermont lawmakers need to go beyond finding more billions to preserve the bricks-and-mortar schooling and enable all parents to seek out and choose among diverse education opportunities that work best for their kids. 

Categories: Policy Solutions
Policy Issues: K-12 Education
Organization: State Policy Network