April 24, 2015 7:37PM

The Year of Educational Choice: An Update

Back in February, I speculated that 2015 might be the "Year of Educational Choice" in the same way that the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 the “Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted new or expanded school choice laws.

This year, in addition to a slew of more traditional school choice proposals, about a dozen legislatures considered new or expanded education savings accounts (ESAs). As I explained previously:

ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Currently, two states have ESA laws: Arizona and Florida. Both states redirect 90% of the funds that they would have spent on a student at her assigned district school into her education savings account. The major difference between the two laws is that Arizona’s ESA is managed by the Arizona Department of Education while Florida’s is privately managed by Step Up For Students and AAA Scholarships, the nonprofit scholarship organizations that also issue scholarships through the Sunshine State’s tax credit law.

Both Arizona and Florida expanded their ESA programs this year. Earlier this month, Arizona expanded eligibility for the ESA to students living on Native American reservations. And just today, the Florida House of Representatives voted unanimously to expand its ESA. Travis Pillow of the RedefinED Online blog explains:

The legislation would allow children with muscular dystrophy and a broader range of students with autism to use Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, a cutting-edge program created last year.

The legislation would also open the program to three- and four-year-olds, expand the services that can be paid for with the accounts, increase oversight for the nonprofit organizations that administer the program, and allow them to collect administrative fees.

The entire Florida Senate cosponsored the legislation and passed it earlier this month. The bill now returns to the Senate where the only major difference is the level of funding.

Three other states also passed ESA bills. Last month, Mississippi adopted an ESA for students with special needs, followed by Tennessee and Montana this month. The Montana legislature also passed a scholarship tax credit law. Both Montana bills are pending action by the governor.

In addition, Nevada passed a new scholarship tax credit law in April, and Arkansas enacted school vouchers for students with special needs.

So far, 2015 has seen state legislatures in seven states adopt eight new or expanded educational choice programs--and the legislative season isn't over yet. Legislators in Missouri and Nevada are still considering education savings accounts, Gov. Scott Walker is pushing to expand Wisconsin's school voucher program, and the Texas state senate recently passed a scholarship tax credit bill. (Alabama legislators are also contemplating expanding their scholarship tax credit law, but the legislation desperately needs improvement.)

Whether or not 2015 tops 2011 in the number of new and expanded educational choice programs, this year has seen a lot of progress toward educational freedom.