School Choice & Charters

Another State Is Launching a Private School Choice Program. Will More Follow?

By Mark Lieberman — March 08, 2024 5 min read
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Alabama on Thursday became the first state in 2024 to establish a new private school choice program, extending the momentum of state-funded education savings account programs that have become commonplace in Republican-led states nationwide.

Education savings accounts are state-funded offerings that parents can use to pay for private school tuition, fees, and a wide range of other related expenses. Parents can use them for a wider variety of expenses than they can private school vouchers, which are similar but exclusively cover tuition.

Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, made private school choice her top priority during her State of the State address in February. State lawmakers then quickly assembled, debated, and passed legislation to establish a new ESA offering worth up to $7,000.

The program is following a template for scaling up previously established by states like Arkansas and Iowa: Eligibility will be limited in the first three years to students with disabilities and students from low-income families, but will widen to all students in the state starting on Jan. 1, 2027.

“This is pretty much out of the private school choice playbook,” said Liz Cohen, policy director at FutureEd, a research organization based at Georgetown University that tracks private school choice legislation.

The Alabama program also includes a separate offering of up to $2,000 for parents who want to homeschool their children. Some states with ESAs, like Iowa, don’t allow homeschooled students to participate. Others, like Arizona, allow homeschool families to receive the full ESA amount.

Legislative wrangling over the proposal in Alabama mirrored broader debates about the most prudent approach to paying for private education with public funds. Some lawmakers wanted stricter regulations requiring ESA users to take the same standardized exams public school students take. Others argued that the state should leave decisions about the quality of children’s education to their parents.

The final Alabama bill requires ESA users to take nationally recognized exams and for schools to report those data, but they don’t have to take Alabama’s standardized state exam.

“It seems to be the upper limit of what the school choice advocates are willing to do in terms of accountability,” Cohen said.

Private school choice continues to make inroads

The private school choice movement has progressed through several phases in the last decade-plus. The term encompasses three main categories of state-sanctioned programs:

  • Vouchers, which allow parents to cover a portion of the cost of tuition for private school
  • Tax-credit scholarships, which provide tax credits to individuals and businesses that donate to organizations that provide scholarships for students to attend private school
  • Education savings accounts, which give parents money to spend on a wide range of private education expenses, including tuition, fees, instructional materials, and transportation

ESAs in the last year have become the most common approach for states establishing new or expanded private school choice programs. With its new program, Alabama becomes the 14th state with ESAs.

All told, 28 states have at least one private school choice program, and 12 states have at least one program for which nearly all students in the state are eligible, according to Education Week’s private school choice tracker.

Those numbers appear likely to grow in the coming months. Lawmakers in Idaho, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Wyoming have pitched new private school choice programs during their current legislative sessions. South Carolina and Tennessee are considering proposals to make existing ESA offerings universally accessible.

These programs bring significant new costs to state budgets, often greatly exceeding projections. That’s partly because, in many states, a significant majority of participating students had never previously enrolled in public schools, meaning the state had not previously invested in their education.

Alabama will devote a minimum of $100 million a year to ESAs, and the new law caps the annual investment at $500 million. States like Arizona and Florida are devoting between 10 and 20 percent of their annual K-12 education investments to private school choice programs, according to an analysis by the Edunomics Lab, a school finance research group based at Georgetown University.

As the number of students eligible to participate in these programs continues to grow in the coming years, questions about how to pay the ballooning bill will become more salient, Cohen said.

“Very rarely in education do we talk about tradeoffs between education and other kinds of costs,” Cohen said. “But if all of a sudden a state is on the hook for a billion dollars a year for scholarships they weren’t planning to, where does that money come from? Does it come from roads? Workforce development? Public schools?”

Voters may have more opportunities to weigh in on related questions in the coming months. Kentucky lawmakers are pushing to secure a spot on the general election ballot for voters to approve or reject private school choice, as well as state support for charter schools. And in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, secured some political victories this week as several candidates for state legislature whom Abbott backed because of their pro-voucher stance triumphed over incumbents who voted against establishing a new ESA program and forced others into runoffs.

Meanwhile, critics of private school choice are continuing to challenge the proliferation of these programs:

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