School Choice & Charters

Private School Choice Continues to Spread. 3 Things to Know

By Mark Lieberman — May 23, 2024 6 min read
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The availability of education savings accounts spurs private schools to raise tuition. Wealthy families benefit from state-subsidized private education options more than poor families do. Politicians in states without vouchers or ESAs aren’t giving up on making them legal.

Those are a few takeaways from recent developments on the landscape of private school choice—state-led programs that offer public funds for parents to spend on private school tuition, fees, and other related expenses.

Private school choice has grown rapidly in recent years. Twenty-nine states currently have at least one private school choice program, and 12 of those states have at least one program that’s accessible to nearly all students in the state, according to Education Week’s private school choice tracker.

This year alone, Alabama, Georgia, and Wyoming have introduced new private school choice programs, and Missouri expanded eligibility for an existing program to all the state’s students. Louisiana and South Carolina currently have bills for private school choice expansion that have garnered approval from one chamber of the legislature.

States like Tennessee and Texas that don’t yet have universal private school choice options for families are continuing to face pressure from advocates to catch up. As these programs become more widespread, scrutiny from academics, politicians, government watchdogs, courts, and public school advocates is likely to intensify.

Here’s a look at the latest developments.

Private school choice options prompt tuition to rise, researchers find

Education scholars at Princeton University last month published the first research-based evidence showing that when states offer parents money toward private school expenses, private schools respond by raising tuition.

Jason Fontana and Jennifer L. Jennings, the paper’s authors, analyzed publicly available tuition data from 2023 for 70 percent of Iowa’s private schools. They used Nebraska private school tuition as a comparison point—Iowa’s ESA offering became universally accessible for the 2023-24 school year, while Nebraska’s will become universally accessible for the 2024-25 school year.

Tuition hikes in Iowa were particularly steep—on average, 21 percent to 25 percent—when the state offered ESAs to all students. When the state limited eligibility to students in particular grades, private school tuition rose by a smaller amount—roughly 10 percent to 16 percent.

Private schools did not raise tuition during the same period for pre-K programs, which were not eligible for ESAs.

Critics of private school choice argue that the programs aren’t designed to help the people who would most benefit from them. Even before schools raise their prices, many states offer vouchers or ESAs that fall short of the average cost of local private school tuition.

“If a goal of ESAs is to extend private school access to new families, the substantial tuition increases they produce may limit access,” Fontana and Jennings write.

Advocates for private school choice have previously contended that tuition increases prompted by new ESA or voucher offerings are more sporadic than some critics argue.

Media outlets have also highlighted private school tuition increases in Arizona and Florida.

Observers use data to highlight underexplored aspects of new programs

Several research organizations have recently used publicly available data to highlight persistent criticisms of private school choice.

Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst for the North Carolina Justice Center, dug up the amount of allocated state funds for K-12 vouchers that went unspent in each of the last 10 years. As of 2016, state law dictates that those unspent funds roll over into the next year’s voucher budget, rather than going back into the state’s broader set of funds to be spent on other priorities.

Between 2014 and 2023, roughly $83 million in allocated voucher funds went unspent. That’s roughly $61 for each of the state’s 1.36 million public school students.

“Unspent voucher funds could otherwise be deployed to useful purposes such as increasing teacher pay or lowering class sizes in our inadequately funded traditional public schools,” Nordstrom wrote in the essay, “How Voucher Programs Undermine the Education Landscape in North Carolina.”

Private school choice investments also affect how states approach funding for K-12 schools in general. The Economic Policy Institute examined per-pupil spending on public K-12 schools in states with and without private school choice.

States that offered vouchers, ESAs, or tax-credit scholarships spent roughly $2,800 less per pupil in 2021 than did states without private school choice, authors Hilary Wething and Josh Bivens found.

Meanwhile, a researcher at the Brookings Institute substantiated concerns from some critics of private school choice that the programs don’t primarily benefit the neediest families. In fact, researchers found that participation in the ESA program in Arizona increased as family income increased. Areas with the lowest poverty rates had nearly 80 ESA participants per 1,000 eligible, while areas with the highest poverty rate had fewer than 25 ESA participants per 1,000 eligible.

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, published a rebuttal to the Brookings analysis, arguing that the state pays far more to serve wealthy families whose children attend public school than it does to subsidize private schools for wealthy families.

Jon Valant, the author of the Brookings paper, recommends states consider the possibility that some families who would benefit from ESA programs don’t know they exist or don’t understand how to apply for them.

“If states that have adopted (or are considering) universal ESA programs are serious about using private school choice to address inequities in school access, they need to take a hard look at these programs,” Valant wrote.

Politicians are eager to get in on the private school choice momentum

Next Tuesday could be a banner day for private school choice in Texas. Voters could elect as many as four new state legislators, all backed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who have signaled they plan to support private school choice in districts where the incumbent has declined to do so.

Abbott and some Texas Republicans have been aggressively pushing private school choice for years. Some rural Republicans have held out, arguing that the programs won’t benefit residents in their districts, where private school options are scarce.

Last year, when a proposal to introduce universally available private school choice narrowly failed to advance, proposals to increase public education funding and teacher salaries died with it.

Farther north, public school advocates in Nebraska are racing to respond after a head-spinning series of developments threatened their efforts to oppose private school choice in the state.

Advocacy groups in October secured a spot on the November election ballot to repeal an existing law that would have offered tax credits to donors to organizations that grant private school scholarships in the state. Lawmakers repealed the law in question and replaced it with a similar law that derives funding for private school tuition directly from the state budget.

In turn, the Nevada secretary of state removed the referendum from the November ballot, arguing it was no longer necessary since it was asking voters whether to repeal a law that had already been repealed.

The groups behind the original ballot referendum are now hoping to secure enough signatures by mid-July to add a new referendum to the ballot, putting the newly minted private school choice law to the voters.


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