During the 2021 legislative sessions, several states passed laws that empower parents to make the best education choices for their children—whether that’s a public, private or home school option. These reforms ranged from creating Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to expanding education tax-credit programs to school funding reform.
In response to the challenges to education brought by the pandemic, we saw more education reform in 2021 than we have over the last several years. Parents are looking for alternatives more than ever before because they see that more choices mean greater opportunities for our nation’s children. These policy solutions create resources that otherwise wouldn’t exist for low-income and underserved communities so they can have the same opportunities that wealthier families have to pursue a quality education.
Below is a snapshot of reforms passed during the 2021 state legislative sessions.
Arkansas passed a law that provides scholarships for around 250 students whose family income is less than or equal to 200% of the federal poverty level. Individuals and corporations are eligible to receive tax credits by donating to organizations that fund these scholarships.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that vastly expands the state’s need-based and special needs scholarships so that more children will have access to educational options.
This measure would consolidate five different K-12 scholarship programs into two, making the application process easier for thousands of Florida families with school-aged children. Additionally, the legislation gives families more flexibility in how they can spend the scholarship money.
Georgia became the first state in the nation to ensure families could continue to participate in learning pods—an innovative education option that exploded in popularity during the pandemic. A learning pod is a small group of children who come together to learn and socialize. Thousands of American students participated in learning pods last year. But as pods became more popular, some policymakers began to issue new regulations for pod operations—potentially limiting the size of pods or slowing pod growth.
But Georgia didn’t stop with learning pods. The Peach State also expanded its special needs scholarships program—which provides vouchers to parents with disabled children to attend private school. The legislation allows more children with physical or learning disabilities to participate in the program. An additional 50,000 children would be eligible for the program.
Indiana created an Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program for students with special needs. This is the first ESA program in the Hoosier State, and it gives families with special needs children a portion of the money that would normally be used on attending the child’s public school to pay for tuition at a private school or on other education-related expenses.
The Iowa legislature passed numerous pieces of legislation that expanded access in the Hawkeye State, including expanding charter schools, increasing the Tuition and Textbook tax credit, and increasing the School Tuition Organization tax credit to $20 million.
Kansas expanded its Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program, which provides tax credits to individuals and businesses that donate to nonprofits that grant scholarships to students to attend private school.
The Kentucky Legislature passed school choice legislation that creates a scholarship tax credit and, separately, allows state funds to follow students outside of their district. This was the first time the Legislature had ever introduced—let alone passed—a parental choice bill. Although the Kentucky governor vetoed this historic school choice legislation, Kentucky lawmakers overrode that veto.
Specifically, the bill creates a $25 million tax credit ESA program which gives parents money for education expenses—including private school tuition, textbooks or tutoring. The legislation also offers parents the opportunity to enroll their child in a public school district different than the one where they reside. Additionally, the bill allows students participating in education pods to be eligible to receive grants to pay for expenses related to pod learning.
Missouri passed a law that creates the “Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program.” The program allows donors to give money to nonprofits that in turn provide scholarships to low-income families and students with disabilities for education-related expenses, including private school tuition.
Montana passed a law that expands the state’s tax credit program that funds scholarships for private school students. The new law increases the income tax credit cap from $150 to $200,000 per year.
Oklahoma passed legislation that increases the size of the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act—a program that provides tax credits to those who donate to organizations that provide private school scholarships.
Texas followed Georgia’s lead and passed a law that protects the state’s learning pods from overregulation.
West Virginia passed the most expansive and inclusive school choice program in the nation. Also called the Hope Scholarship, the program is essentially an Education Savings Account (ESA), or state-supervised funds that parents can use to pay for a wide variety of education options. The Hope Scholarship provides eligible West Virginia families with $4,600 per year to pay for private school tuition, curriculum, special needs therapy, transportation and more.
Initially, the program is for students who have been enrolled in public school for a minimum of 45 calendar days or who are kindergarten age for the 2022-2023 school year. In 2027, the program could open up to all West Virginia students, regardless of their schooling type.
The West Virginia Legislature also passed a law to allow fully online charter schools to operate in the state.
Michael Chartier is State Policy Network’s Senior Director of Policy Initiatives. Michael works with both state think tanks and national partners to advance educational policies that seek to provide every student with an education that is best suited to their needs.