2023: The Year of Universal Education Freedom
2023 has been another massive success for American students and families as more states implement programs designed to empower parents and provide more choice in education. In all, 8 different states have now implemented universal school choice programs, including 6 this year alone. With these programs in place, more than 12,500,000 American students will have access to some form of education freedom – close to 23% of all students in the country. This number has increased exponentially since the beginning of COVID and is sure to continue rising as even more states pass significant school choice programs in 2024.
Earlier this year, ALEC published our Essential Policy Solutions for 2023, which highlighted the expansion of universal education savings accounts (ESAs) as a top issue for lawmakers. Many of the policies we now see being implemented across the country closely mirror the recommendations in this publication as well as our Hope Scholarship Act, which offers lawmakers a template to bring universal ESAs to their state.
With so much action happening this year, it may have been difficult to keep track of all these huge developments. Below is a summary of the most significant new programs that were passed into law this year and what they will do.
During National School Choice Week, Iowa became the first state in 2023 to pass a universal education scholarship account (ESA) program thanks to the leadership of Governor Kim Reynolds, Speaker Pro Tem John Wills, and Senator Amy Sinclair. Once fully implemented, the program allows 100% of state funding to follow the student and is open to any family wishing to participate. The program is already proving to be a massive success, receiving over 10,000 applications within the first 72 hours of the application window opening.
Utah was the second state this year to pass a universal ESA, called the Utah Fits All Scholarship Program. Any student can apply for an $8,000 scholarship, but the legislature appropriated a fixed amount of $42,500,000 for the program’s first year, effectively limiting the maximum program participation to about 5,000 students.
Led by newly-elected Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Arkansas legislature passed the Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking, and School Safety (LEARNS) Act. LEARNS was the most comprehensive education package passed in 2023, and not only creates a new universal ESA program, but also provides resources aimed at improving early-childhood literacy and solidifying parental rights. School choice opponents quickly filed a lawsuit, and the state is currently prohibited from implementing the LEARNS Act until the Arkansas Supreme Court can issue a final ruling on its constitutionality. Opponents have also started a petition drive to force the legislation to a vote of the people.
Florida continues to wear the school-choice crown, as it also passed two universal ESA programs this year. One program, the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options, is funded through the state’s education formula, while the other, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, is funded through corporate contributions in exchange for a tax credit. Both programs allow 100% of state education dollars to follow all students in the state.
Senator Lou Ann Linehan, ALEC’s Nebraska State Chair, successfully carried LB 753 across the finish line this year. The bill creates the Opportunity Scholarship Tax-Credit Scholarship Program, the state’s first ever school-choice program. Students can apply if they are entering kindergarten or 9th grade for the first time. They can also apply if they are entering another grade and attended their public school for the duration of the previous academic year. Scholarships are prioritized for low-income students and those with special needs, and the tax-credit cap for the first year is set at $25 million. Opponents of the program have started a petition drive aimed at forcing the program to a vote of the people and potentially preventing it from taking effect, though it isn’t clear if they will be able to gather the required signatures in time.
South Carolina passed its first ESA program that will be eventually be available to families with a household income below 400% of the federal poverty level. Scholarships are initially capped at 5,000 per year but this figure increases to 15,000 by the 2026-2027 school year. Each scholarship award will be $6,000.
Indiana passed a significant expansion of the state’s voucher program, lifting the maximum amount of household income required to participate to 400% of the federal free-or-reduced-price-lunch level ($222,000 for a family of 4). This means that 97% of the state’s students will be able to participate – making the program available to nearly every student in the state. On average, scholarship awards are roughly $5,439.
Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed HB 393 into law, which creates the Montana Special Needs Equal Opportunity Education Savings Account Program. The ESA is limited to students with special needs and only allows 10% of state funding to follow the student, but still represents a small step toward helping the state’s special needs students are given the best opportunity to succeed.
Oklahoma became the first state in the country to pass an ESA-like refundable tax-credit program. While a traditional ESA allows families to use their account balance to make approved educational purchases, Oklahoma will allow these families to submit those receipts on their tax return and receive a credit of up to $7,500. The legislature also made the credit universal and fully refundable so all families can take advantage of it.