This year, the coronavirus pandemic presented new hurdles for 55.1 million students and their families after 124,000 public and private schools closed nationwide. Despite these unprecedented challenges, policymakers and families responded quickly with innovative solutions, which helped to advance education choice in 2020.
Here are eight examples of education choice wins from this year:
1. Supreme Court Protects Religious Schools’ Rights
The Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue was a victory for private school choice. The court affirmed that states cannot stop religious schools from participating in a state’s school choice program.
Chief Justice John Roberts noted that Montana’s policy “discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend them in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the Federal Constitution. They are members of the community too, and their exclusion from [Montana’s] scholarship program here is odious to our Constitution and cannot stand.”
2. Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Became the First School Choice Program to Enroll More Than 100,000 Participants
According to Florida’s Department of Education, 100,008 students enrolled in the program for the 2020-21 academic year.
These scholarships, funded by donations made by individuals and corporations that in turn receive a credit against their state tax obligations, allow eligible children to attend the private school of their choice.
3. Ohio Expands Educational Choice for Low-Income Families
Ohio expanded its Educational Choice Scholarship so that students whose families’ income is up to 250% the federal poverty line or who are enrolled in school where 20% of the student body are from low-income families are now eligible.
4. Learning Pods Explode in Popularity
Learning pods entered the education foray as parents—dissatisfied with the crisis virtual options implemented by many district schools—collaborated to create small education environments that emphasize in-person schooling to small student groups. As civil society’s response to the education crisis caused by the pandemic, learning pods gained widespread popularity.
According to a nationally representative EdChoice poll, 35% of parents claimed to participate in a learning pod, and nearly 20% of respondents indicated they were looking for a learning pod to join.
The popularity of learning pods was not limited to students and their families, as approximately 70% of surveyed teachers expressed interest in teaching or tutoring a learning pod.
5. Microschools Take Off in Arizona
Prenda, a network of microschools operating in Arizona, has grown exponentially. The Prenda network provides flexible learning environments to groups of five to 10 children in homes or office buildings. In just two years, Prenda’s network has grown from one to more than 200 schools.
Moreover, the network gained significant attraction during the month of June—according to CNN: “Website traffic was up 737% this June over the same month last year.”
Prenda partners with charter schools to provide a free education and also accepts Arizona’s education savings accounts.
6. Homeschooling Gains Acceptance Among Parents
With most children learning from home, a nationally representative survey conducted by EdChoice suggested a greater acceptance of homeschooling among parents. In fact, 70% of school parents indicated that their opinions of homeschooling changed to either “much more favorable” or “somewhat more favorable.”
7. States Use Federal Funding for Education Wisely
In response to the coronavirus-induced education crisis, Congress appropriated $13.5 billion to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, with $3 billion of these funds being directed to the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. This provides governors with resources to use for various education initiatives, including school choice programs.
While new federal spending wouldn’t normally end up in our “win” column, the way in which some governors leveraged the funds did.
For example, Oklahoma’s governor used Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds to create “Stay in School Scholarships,” which appropriated $10 million to cover tuition at the state’s 150 private schools. More than 1,500 Oklahoma students could receive $6,500 scholarships, which value as either more than or most of the cost of private school tuition in the state.
Oklahoma students can also access $8 million Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet funding—which works not unlike education savings accounts. This program is funded by the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund and will provide more than 5,000 children living in poverty with $1,500 grants to “purchase curriculum content, tutoring services, and/or technology.”
Florida also used $30 million of its Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds to stabilize its tax credit scholarship. Another $15 million in Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds were put toward the Private School Stabilization Grant Fund, which supported many private schools that were struggling from mandated closures.
With the pandemic forcing 120 permanent private school closures around the country, the Private School Stabilization Grant Fund was a boon to Florida’s private schools.
Like Florida, New Hampshire used its Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds to boost funding for its tax credit scholarship by $1.5 million. The additional funding will help 800 students receive scholarships valued at $1,875 each. That amount covers more than 22% of the average cost of tuition at a private elementary school in the state.
8. Student-Centered Education Gains Support
EdChoice has found that there is growing support for student-centered education, instead of institution-centered education. Support for education savings accounts among parents increased to 86%. This means that nearly 9 out of 10 parents support education savings accounts.
The growing support for education choice shows that parents increasingly recognize that education should be tailored to children, not institutions.
The effects of the pandemic have illustrated that one-size-fits-all schooling models fall short of student needs, especially during a crisis. The lessons of 2020—a year of significant change in education—should remind policymakers that the best education solutions are flexible and bring decision-making closer to the families they affect.