top of page
School Choice

The Senate Presidents’ Forum convened virtually on April 5, 2024, for a session focused on school choice. With 78 bills related to school choice currently in motion across 27 states, this timely session produced important shared learning among top senate leaders. The discussion was introduced by Samuel E. Abrams, PhD, who is Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education and on the faculty of Teachers College at Columbia University.

Samuel E. Abrams, PhD


National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education

Teachers College, Columbia University

Dr. Abrams noted that there is a lot of common ground in U.S. school choice discussions, and it need not be a divisive subject. He cited both conservative and liberal views that converge on the value of school choice. He also provided an international context, pointing out that many countries currently have a significant percentage of students attending schools of choice with positive results.


He reported that school choice has a long U.S. history, beginning in 1991, when Wisconsin introduced vouchers. Today, 25 States have voucher programs. Minnesota licensed the first charter school in 1992; today, all but six states have charter schools. Arizona pioneered tuition tax-credit scholarships in 1997, and Florida introduced education savings accounts (ESA) in 2011. Today, 27 states are exploring school choice options.


There are important issues to be considered when making school choice decisions, Dr. Abrams said. The exit of students from public schools puts fiscal pressure on district schools, which receive per-capita funding but still must meet fixed costs such as library and nursing staff, materials and equipment for science labs or workshops.


A second issue is inadequate regulation of private schooling, pod schooling, and home schooling, in the absence of national standards and measures of achievement. Only half of the states currently regulate private schools. International programs provide models for implementing standards to ensure equity, measures of success to assess achievement, and strategies for building the teacher workforce, Dr. Abrams observed. National standards for curricula and for teacher certification for all school choices could help meet these challenges, he suggested.


A third issue is the risk of economic discrimination when vouchers are not sufficient to meet private school costs. Such disparities could result in children with greater needs being excluded from private schools, and a concentration of students with greater needs (physical, behavioral, and academic) in district schools.


Rural states have been hard-pressed to create school choice options because sparse populations can’t necessarily fill the seats in a private school. However, the advent of ESA’s now enables parents to create a “pod” school or to home school children, albeit with potential impact on the district school.


In conclusion, Dr. Abrams pointed out that, in the long term, school choice through vouchers or ESAs can reduce public costs given the lower financial allocation for vouchers than for per-pupil spending in public schools. He raised the concern, however, that in the very long term, there could be costs to workforce quality and productivity incurred by inadequate instruction in insufficiently regulated private schools. He also commented on the “erosion of common ground” if students are not exposed to a variety of people and discussion of differing ideas. Public schools are the cultural and social centers of rural communities, and without them, those residents lose their connection to one another.

Information and comments provided by guest speakers are not intended to express the views of the Senate Presidents’ Forum.


Abrams is the author of Education and the Commercial Mindset (Harvard University Press, 2016), an analysis of the impact of market forces on public education in the U.S. and abroad. He was previously a high school history teacher for 18 years. For his advancement of the understanding of Finnish education in the United States, he was knighted by the Finnish governement in 2014. His recent research projects include a study funded by the Southern Poverty Law Center concerning the impact of vouchers and tuition tax credit scholarships on public school budgets. For the 2022-23 academic year, he served as a Fulbright visiting professor at the University of Turku, Finland. Abrams earned his B.A. in history, M.A. in economics and education, and Ph.D. in politics and education from Columbia.



Remarks contributed by participating senate members have been paraphrased for the purposes of this report.

Sen. Joan Huffman (Chair, Senate Committee on Finance, Texas): There’s been a lot of drama concerning school choice and ESAs. We tried to pass a bill in multiple special sessions, but it failed. Gov. Abbott has campaigned against those who would not support the bill and, by our next regular session in January 2025, the membership may change. It’s hard to predict the outcome for an ESA bill. We have a robust charter school network, especially in our urban centers. But those I represent in the rural areas do not support the idea.


Sen. Ben Albritton (Senate Majority Leader, Florida): In March 2023, Florida instituted a policy that the money follows the student. Our focus is on parental engagement and empowerment, and we find a huge appetite for education vouchers. It cost the state more than we anticipated. The surge in utilization was $3 million, but we have a $10 billion surplus and so we can manage it. But the rural areas pose different challenges. Southwest Florida has three rural counties, and a host of teachers will be let go because of the lack of students. A rural support bill will be considered in the next session that may help address this and other issues.


Sen. Bill Cunningham (President Pro Tempore, Illinois): What happens with special education populations when children move out of the public system? It looks like there’s a hollowing out of public schools where many children migrate to private schools, and we are left with a population of students who are only attending public school as a last resort. This seems like it would break down the progress we’ve made on mainstreaming special ed students.


Dr. Abrams: We’ve already seen this problem in charter schools. There is research on peer group effects—strong students do better and catalyze each other’s performance. If you have students who cannot handle the challenge of private schools, you get a concentration of kids with more demanding needs in the public school. Charter and private schools are often not equipped to help children with significant needs.


Sen. Tom Alexander (President of the Senate, South Carolina): The South Carolina Supreme Court is reviewing the state’s year-old voucher program that by the 2026-27 school year would allow 15,000 children from households making less than 400% of the federal poverty line to receive $6,000 taxpayer-funded scholarships to attend private schools. The Court will decide if allowing parents to spend taxpayer money on private schools violates part of the state constitution banning direct aid to anything other than public schools.


Sen. Rodrick Bray (Senate President Pro Tempore, Indiana): Vouchers and ESAs have been very popular and the program has expanded to include those at 400% of poverty, and ESAs are now available both to disabled children and now extends to their siblings. We created a Career Savings Account as well that parents can use to get their children into the workforce for workplace training. I question if parents might use the ESA without benefitting their children.


Dr. Abrams: There is documentation of abuse of ESAs, where parents have used ESAs in ways that are not educationally appropriate.


Sen. Ronald Kouchi (President of the Senate, Hawaii): Hawaii has a unique situation. An individual island could not fund its own school district, so we have a single, state-run school district with 260 elementary middle and high schools. We have charter and private schools, and home schooling. Our state’s constitution prohibits using public money for private education, which creates a hurdle for universal pre-K. There is inadequate space on Department of Education (DOE) campuses; therefore, private providers are retained to meet this need and these are hired through Human Services, not the DOE. We cannot use the measurement of educational outcomes as a metric because this would violate the state constitution.


Sen. Paul Newton (Senate Majority Leader, North Carolina): We are expanding school choice. Since 2013, we have an Opportunity Scholarship Grant, focused on disadvantaged children, and now it is opened up to any income level. The priority is for lower income children and the scholarship amount is higher for them. We had more requests on opening day this year than all of last year. It appears to save money because the grant is less than the usual per capita allocation, and we plan to allocate the savings to the public system. We want to make accessible the educational path that is best for the children.


Sen. Bart Hester (Senate President Pro Tempore, Arkansas): In 2023, we started a program where 1%, and now 3%, of kids can take advantage of the voucher program. Eligible kids are those from failing schools, or incoming from kindergarten or from foster care. This year added children of first responders, military, and kids in districts that are rated “D”, with 8,000 signed up. Parents love this.

   In Arkansas, it’s not a concern that private schools may teach too much religious education. That’s a gold-star attribute, and we want more of that. We want more religious schools. That worked pretty well when we founded our country. At the same time, we also put more funding in public schools than ever before. The government tries to tell a parent of a special needs child what is best for them. We absolutely disagree with that. A parent knows better than a bureaucrat. We are enabling parent choice, and parents are willing to drive their kids to the schools that are most effective for their children.


Sen. T.J. Shope (Senate President Pro Tempore, Arizona): Since the mid-1990s, Arizona has been at the forefront of the school choice world. We expanded universal ESA vouchers in 2020. As ESAs have expanded there has been a cost benefit to the system. The metro areas have more choice of charter schools, though they are now appearing into exurban areas. The main philosophical issue is that parents should be able to direct their tax dollars to the school of their choice.


Sen. Jonathan Dismang (Co-Chair, Senate Joint Budget Committee, Arkansas): Many of the schools have been failing our kids, and the parents and the public are demanding that we improve the system, which hasn’t changed in decades. The special needs parents are clamoring for change and improvement because the public school system could not meet their children’s needs. It is a necessity to do something different to improve the system for our children.

2024 April Forum

Online Zoom

April 5, 2024

•     •     •

bottom of page