Universal school choice grows in popularity as more GOP-led states expand options for students
Many states across the U.S. have adopted some sort of school choice program, allowing students in specific circumstances to use state funds to go to the school of their choice, but the concept of granting all school children this ability is growing in popularity, with several states either adopting such plans this year or moving in that direction.
One year ago, universal school choice did not exist anywhere in the country. On Tuesday, a Florida State Senate committee held a hearing and voted in favor of a new bill that, if passed, would make the Sunshine State the fourth to have it.
"We just want to make sure that the dollars are following the child and the child gets the best education they possibly can with parents' input," Sen. Cory Simon, who sponsored the senate's version of the legislation, told reporters on Tuesday. A similar State House bill was introduced in January.
Florida already has a wide-ranging school choice program, granting scholarship money to low-income families or for children with one of a broad range of health, emotional or learning-related diagnoses. The scholarships can be used toward a variety of private schools, including religious ones.
Arizona was the first to start the universal school choice trend. In July 2022, the state opened up its Educational Savings Account program to all students, eliminating restrictions that had limited it to those in poor-performing school districts, Indian reservations and those with disabilities. The state's program gives $7,000 per year for non-disabled students who choose not to go to public school, to be used for private school tuition, tutoring, homeschooling or other educational costs.
When he signed it, then-Gov. Doug Ducey hailed the legislation as a "monumental moment for all of Arizona’s students," saying that "kids will no longer be locked in under-performing schools."
New Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, however, has opposed school choice for years, even voting against the previous program in 2011.
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"This voucher system we are under now doesn’t provide real choice in educational opportunity for most families," she told Arizona's PBS station in October. "It diverts resources from public schools and provides a subsidy for already wealthy children whose parents could already afford private education for them."
Data, however, does not necessarily back up Hobbs's claims. A Census Bureau report showed that the state spent a total of $8,785 per public school student in 2019-2020. That figure was the third-lowest in the nation but is still higher than what the state now spends on school choice scholarships.
This year has already seen two other states follow Arizona's lead. Iowa and Utah, both led by Republicans, have passed legislation that will expand school choice to all students in the coming years.
American Federation For Children senior fellow Corey DeAngelis told Fox News last month that in addition to Florida, states such as Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas could follow.
"A universal school choice revolution has ignited. Utah is the second state this year to go all-in on empowering families with education freedom, and it's only January. Red states are now engaging in friendly competition to fund students, not systems. Iowa already passed universal school choice this year," DeAngelis said.
The issue may turn into a significant one heading into the 2024 election season. Possible GOP presidential candidate Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., will be in Iowa on Wednesday for a school choice event.
Scott has a record of supporting school choice. His campaign website states that "all families deserve equal access to whatever option works best for their child," and he has supported federal legislation that would have given options to students with disabilities, military families and low-income families in Washington, D.C.
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Fox News's Joshua Q. Nelson contributed to this report.