A new report evaluating states on their K-12 performance and school choice options, ranks Arizona, Florida, and Indiana as the states with the best education policy.
The 23rd annual edition of the Report Card on American Education by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ranks all 50 states and the District of Columbia on six factors: state academic standards, charter schools, homeschool regulation burden, private school choice, teacher quality, and digital learning.
There was virtually no change among this year’s overall top- and bottom-five states compared to previous years, across a variety of measures.
This year’s top five states, ranked first through fifth, are Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Georgia, and the District of Columbia. The five lowest-ranked states, beginning with the fifty-first, are Nebraska, North Dakota, Hawaii, South Dakota, and Alaska.
Grade ‘A’ School Choice
In addition to ranking the states, ALEC also assigned letter grades for states’ school choice programs. Three states earned “A” grades: Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin. The factors considered include which students qualify and the amount of financial support given to parents for private school expenses, says Vicki Alger, a research fellow at the Independent Institute.
“These states stand out because of their expansive student eligibility policies as well as program purchasing power so lower- and middle-income families can afford to participate,” Alger said. “Also, private-school parental choice programs in these states are not overly regulated, so participating schools can preserve their autonomy and uniqueness.”
‘Most Inclusive Program’: Arizona
Arizona’s five established school choice programs, especially a program allowing parents to use a per-pupil share of government funds to pay for tuition at private schools or for other education expenses, make it a good choice for first place, says Scott Kaufman, ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Task Force director.
“Arizona, by our measure, ranks first because of the sheer number of programs of choice they offer and the types of programs, particularly their Education Savings Account,” or ESA, Kaufman said.
“It was the first and most inclusive program in the country, with 22 percent of students eligible statewide,” Kaufman said. “Our model policy on ESAs is based on Arizona’s legislation, so we think pretty highly of it.”
ESAs are currently available in only five states: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Implementation of Nevada’s ESA program has been delayed by litigation. Parents with access to ESAs may remove their children from the local government school and receive a grant of a percentage of per-pupil spending from the state to educate their child in an alternative environment.
“In my opinion, ESAs are the most exciting thing going on in education reform right now,” Kaufman said. “I often compare it to a health savings account but for education. Government puts the money it would have otherwise spent on a child’s schooling into a restricted-use bank account, giving parents flexibility beyond just tuition. I think it is an educational game changer.”
Grading Charter School Policies
ALEC also graded the states on their charter school policies. Charters are public schools that are independently run and free of some of the regulations on traditional public schools. Four states earned an “A” for their charter school programs: Arizona, Indiana, the District of Columbia, and Minnesota.
“What sets these states apart are policies encouraging a variety of independent charter-school authorizers besides government entities, school autonomy unstifled by burdensome regulations, and policies not restricting the number of charter schools that can open or the number of students who can enroll,” Alger said.
Homeschooling, Digital Learning
States were also graded on access to homeschooling, another fast-growing form of choice.
“Eleven states earned an “A” in this category for not imposing a regulatory burden on parents, including not requiring them to notify state officials of their decision to homeschool their children,” Alger said.
The “A” states on homeschooling are Alaska, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Texas.
States were also graded on digital learning, which allows students to learn from home. Florida and Utah each received an “A-“, the highest grade awarded in that category this year.
“Digital learning empowers parents to choose self-paced educational options beyond those offered during a typical school year at brick-and-mortar schools,” Alger said.
Disappointed at Slow Progress
Progress has been slow in broadening eligibility for choice programs, says Alger.
“Focusing specifically on parental choice programs, top-performing states should be commended,” Alger said. “However, given that parental choice programs have been operating for decades, it is disappointing there aren’t more grade ‘A’ states, particularly since the scientific research overwhelmingly demonstrates positive effects of parental choice programs. These include higher standardized test scores for program participants, as well as higher high-school graduation rates, college attendance rates, and college completion rates.
“Most research also finds higher parental satisfaction rates, that competition for students raises public-school student test scores, and the vast majority of choice programs generate net fiscal savings for local school districts, states, and taxpayers,” Alger said.
School choice programs expand the choices available to children, allowing families to find the option that fits them best, says Mike McShane, director of national research for EdChoice.
“Research has shown that giving families more options helps kids do better in life,” McShane said. “It has also been shown to improve the performance of public schools. Private school choice is a win-win.”
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.
Scott Kaufman, Report Card on American Education (23rd Edition): Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform, American Legislative Exchange Council, September 19, 2019: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/report-card-on-american-education-23rd-edition-ranking-state-k-12-performance-progress-and-reform