Florida becomes 4th red state to expand school-choice options this year

Riding the so-called “parental rights” movement, more Republican-led states are changing the way they fund K-12 education, making it easier for families to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools.

All families in Iowa, Utah, Arkansas and Florida – regardless of their income – will soon be eligible for thousands of state dollars each year to send their children to private K-12 schools after new legislation was passed during the first three months of this year.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, signed a sweeping education bill – which also provides raises to public school teachers – into law less than two months after being sworn into office.

Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds finally succeeded in getting a school-choice policy passed after several attempts over the years.

“Parents, not the government, can now choose the education setting best suited to their child regardless of their income or zip code,” Reynolds said in a statement following the bill’s passage.

Similar school-choice programs aimed at making it easier for all families to choose what school to send their children to could be on the horizon.

Republican lawmakers in at least 34 states so far this year have proposed legislation to create or expand tax-funded programs to help parents cover the cost of private education, according to FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

A shift as a Republican push for parental rights takes hold

School-choice programs are not new and are often politically contentious. Many states already have voucher, scholarship or savings accounts programs that steer taxpayer money to families sending their kids to private schools.

But now, as a push for parental empowerment has become a key part of the Republican agenda – touching on everything from banning certain books to restricting instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity – more school-choice programs are making all families eligible, regardless of their income or where they live.

“It’s a fundamental, philosophical shift about what it means to fund public education,” said Liz Cohen, FutureEd’s policy director.

“I don’t think we know how this is going to play out. It’s a brave new world situation,” she said.

West Virginia and Arizona started the recent trend toward making all K-12 students eligible for school-choice programs in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

Then Iowa, Utah and Arkansas also created education savings account programs, known as ESAs, this year. States will deposit money into the accounts for each student that families can withdraw to pay for private school.

In Utah, all families will be eligible to apply for up to $8,000 per child for private school tuition and related expenses starting with the program’s launch for the 2024-2025 school year. At first, the program will be able to fund about 5,000 scholarships, or about four students per school across the state. If the number of applications exceeds the cap, low-income families will be prioritized.

Iowa and Arkansas will eventually make all families eligible for their respective programs after giving certain lower-income families preference as the programs are phased in. Iowa families will be eligible for nearly $7,600 per child annually. Arkansas students will be eligible for roughly $6,700 a year to start, according to the bill sponsors, Rep. Keith Brooks and Sen. Breanne Davis. The value of the savings accounts is based on what funding the states provide public schools for each student enrolled.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed a bill into law on March 27 that expands the state’s existing ESA program, known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Currently, only low-income families are eligible for the program, but the income requirement will be eliminated starting July 1 so that all families with a K-12 student are eligible. Low-income families will still receive priority for the funds.

Critics worry about taking money away from public schools and teachers

Opponents of school-choice policies, including many teachers unions, argue that they take money away from public schools, which usually receive a certain amount of money from the state per student.

Research on the impact of existing school-choice programs is mixed and leaves more questions than answers, Cohen said.

But advocates say that the education savings accounts are not meant to pit public schools against private schools.

“This bill strikes a good balance. More than 90% of parents support Utah schools and so do we,” said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, in a statement after signing the bill into law.

“School choice works best when we adequately fund public education and we remove unnecessary regulations that burden our public schools and make it difficult for them to succeed,” he added.

The school-choice laws passed by Iowa, Utah and Arkansas also provide raises to public school teachers.

The Arkansas law will increase teachers’ base pay from $36,000 to $50,000 and give every teacher a $2,000 increase next year. Utah is providing a $6,000 compensation increase to teachers, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci.

In Iowa, the new law will allow public schools to use some unspent state funding to boost teacher salaries, as well as give roughly $1,205 to public school districts for every student who lives in those districts but attends a private school, according to the governor’s office.