More red states explore ESAs

An advocacy group is tracking 78 school choice bills this year.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Red state leaders continue to push for letting parents spend taxpayer dollars on private education, saying expanded subsidies will support kids’ unique needs and foster competition that will improve all schools.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) last month signed a bill creating Education Savings Accounts that families can use to pay for private school tuition, homeschool supplies and other expenses. Lawmakers in Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee are considering creating similar programs, all of which would eventually be open to families regardless of income.

EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based school choice advocacy group, is tracking 78 bills that would expand, create or make fixes to school choice programs across 27 states this year.

Proposals are advancing in deep-red states despite fierce opposition from Democrats, teachers’ unions and some Republicans, who say “universal” vouchers with no income limits will mostly benefit wealthy families already paying for private school, at a huge cost to taxpayers without clear benefits.

Low-income students tend to fall behind academically after using state money to switch from public to private school, statewide studies have shown.

“We just hope our legislators will come to their senses, and know that public dollars should be used for public schools,” said Tanya Coats, president of the Tennessee Education Association.

Legal questions have curtailed some school choice efforts this year. Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon (R) last month used his veto pen to limit a proposed ESA program to only low-income families, saying that a universal program could violate the state constitution.

Expanding private education subsidies has nevertheless become a top priority for many lawmakers, particularly on the right. Supporters say families should have more choices and point to other, more promising findings from voucher studies, such as high levels of parental satisfaction and signs of public school improvement.

Parental support for a local ESA program in Tennessee helped convince state leaders to try expanding the program, said Senate Education Committee Chair Jon Lundberg (R).

“We know the parent satisfaction is virtually off-the-charts,” he said.

Lawmakers pushing universal ESA bills this year say they’ve set some fiscal limits and imposed modest accountability measures to avoid problems other states have faced — such as higher-than-expected costs and fraud.

Read more: Universal school choice program costs vary wildly by state

Those provisions have helped win over some school choice skeptics, although others say the protections don’t go far enough.

Alabama lawmakers appropriated $100 million for the new ESA program’s first year, with future increases contingent on demand. Fiscal restraint helped build support for the bill, said Sen. Arthur Orr (R), chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee.

“We got the numbers at $100 million, which is a manageable number,” Orr said. “Previous years had been $5-600 million, which in my opinion was not manageable.” He said Alabama spends about $9 billion a year to fund public education, not including federal funds.

Alabama families will be able to apply for $7,000 per child enrolled in private school starting this fall. Families will also be able to apply for $2,000 per child not enrolled in private school, money that can pay for out-of-district public school fees, homeschool supplies, tutoring and other education expenses.

Awards will be restricted to families with incomes below 300% of the federal poverty level for the first two years, and students with disabilities, lower-income students and children of active-duty service members will be prioritized.

The Alabama law requires accredited schools and parents to submit receipts for reimbursement, Orr said. It also requires students receiving ESA funds to take standardized tests of the participating school’s choice.

Louisiana’s proposed ESA program would also ramp up slowly. It would initially make funds available to kindergarteners, students attending public school, low-income students enrolled in another voucher program and students whose families earn below 250% of the federal poverty level. It would expand to serve all families in three years.

“We’ve had the benefit of learning from the highs and lows of these other states,” Senate Education Committee Chair Rick Edmonds (R) said during a hearing last month.

Louisiana fiscal analysts estimate that the ESA program would cost $41.7 million in its first year and $258 million in Fiscal Year 2028, when all families would be able to apply.

In Tennessee, the House, Senate and Gov. Bill Lee (R) have all put forward universal ESA proposals, with varying requirements and price tags. The Senate bill has the strictest testing measures, requiring recipients to take state-approved 3rd grade reading and 8th grade math tests.

Parents and policymakers need to know if students are falling behind, Sen. Lundberg said.

“If we find out five years from now that private schools are doing so much better than charter schools, than public schools — then, frankly, it requires a policy action,” he said.