••• Education •••

School choice initiatives flourish across the country, flounder in Kansas (pt 2)

Part 1 of this essay described that while school choice, primarily through universal ESA’s, is being both initiated and expanded across the country, Kansas students continue to be captive in assigned schools. Assignment which is, of course, based on artificial boundaries that exist to protect the public-school virtual monopoly on K-12 education. This is a monopoly set up not only to keep students in, but also to keep certain students out.

The theme of the preceding article is that while lawmakers in other states are providing parents with greater control over their children’s educational opportunities, Kansas lawmakers argue over how much more taxpayer dollars to pour into the public education establishment’s coffers.

In the past two years, several states have either commenced or expanded education savings/spending accounts (ESA). Although ESAs in each state vary in both scope and qualification, the basic structure is the same. The state gives those who qualify direct cash payments – all ESA programs have “waste” protections built in – that parents can use to pay for a variety of educational needs in private schools: tuition, fees, books, tutoring and even savings for college are among common ESA-related expenditures. In this analysis, a look at three states that passed new universal ESAs – Utah, Iowa, and Arkansas – along with two states that expanded ESAs – Arizona and Florida – are provided.


The Beehive State passed a universal ESA law, known as the Utah Fits All Scholarship Program, in 2023, set to begin for the 2024-25 school year. Applications were taken starting on February 28 of this year. Originally, the law provided for 10,000 students to receive an ESA. Within the first 24 hours of opening the application process, the state received 10,617 applications. In response to the overwhelming response, the state doubled the number of applications along with doubling the statewide appropriation from $40 million to $80 million. Pursuant to the new law, students are eligible for up to $8,000 to pay for such educational related expenses as “private school tuition and fees, tutoring services, testing fees, materials and curriculum costs, (and) contracted services.”


Parents in Iowa applied for their version of an ESA – known as the Students First Act – in 2023 at a much faster clip than anticipated. Nearly 19,000 applicants were approved last year, 30% higher than anticipated. Iowa’s appropriation for ESAs has no ceiling, so all those approved applications were funded at $7,635 (the amount has increased to $7,826 for the 2024-25 school year) per student. Income eligibility is 400% of poverty – family of four annual income, approximately $125,000. Total appropriations for 2023-24 school year, are about $145 million.


In March 2023 Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law an ESA as part of a broader education reform law known as the LEARNS Act. (LINK) By the 2025-26 school year, the ESA will be truly universal. The Arkansas ESA provides fewer dollars to eligible applicants than other states: $6,672 per student. In the initial year, 5,226 applicants were approved. For the coming school year, 2024-25, about 13, 000 students will be eligible.


In 2022 the Grand Canyon State expanded a limited ESA that had existed for a decade to a universal one. The response was incredible. The number of ESA recipients rose seven-fold, from 11,000 to nearly 77,000. The amount of money each student receives varies, depending on special education status and per-pupil funding for public schools, but the current average is about $7,00. Despite the fact that there are no income limitations, the average income of families who receive an ESA is lower than the state average.


Florida is the king of ESAs, at least for now. In 2023, Governor DeSantis signed into law a universal expansion of their existing ESA, the Family Empowerment Scholarship program, which made every family with school-age children eligible for an ESA. Over 136,000 students now receive an ESA worth approximately $8,000 to spend on private school expenses. Florida is the flagship state for overall school choice, with more than 1.3 million students attending a school of their preference.

Myths and Misconceptions

Freeing students and families from the captivity of the public education behemoth is often an arduous political task. But these five states, along with eleven other states that have initiated their versions of ESAs, have shown the political will to take on educrats and provide at least one form of school choice through an ESA.

There are those who want the public to believe that these ESAs are the product of a bipartisan effort to give families more freedom of choice. Unfortunately, when it comes to voting on such education freedom bills, the bipartisanship effort is to defeat these efforts. Take Utah for example. The Utah House of Representatives vote on the ESA passed 54-20. Not a single Democrat voted in favor of the ESA. However, six Republicans joined the 14 Democrats in the house to vote against it.

As of this writing Texas does not have a universal ESA, although Governor Greg Abbott – a Republican – has pushed hard to get an ESA through. Why doesn’t Texas have an ESA? It’s because of pro-establishment Republicans who believe the institution is more important than the student. Last November, in a special legislative session, 21 House Republicans joined every Democrat to quash the Texas version of an ESA.

Clearly, the struggle to free students from public school captivity transcends partisan politics.

It’s extremely rare to find a Democrat who is willing to stand up to the education establishment and vote on principles. Here are a few who have that courage. If a universal ESA was put to the test in the Kansas legislature, it is likely the outcome would be similar to that in Texas. Too many big government Republicans would toe the line to keep the hands of the state in charge of primary and secondary education. The challenge reformers face does not come from changing the behavior of Democrat elected officials, that’s just not going to happen. It’s that small band of Republicans who refuse to give up the key to liberation from government-run education.

It’s worth noting that earlier this century education reform was sometimes a bi-partisan affair as primarily urban Democrats recognized that low achievement scores were harming their constituents and demanded change. Often, that meant partnering with Republicans to advance reforms as was the case in Florida.

Evidence of this argument in Kansas is that the full body didn’t consider an Oklahoma-like educational income tax credit this year. This is despite the fact that a bill establishing such an income tax credit education program passed the Senate Tax Committee.

That public education establishment is particularly threatened by ESAs because it puts the control of educational choice in the hands of parents. It frees families from the binds of government dependency in that manner. And government in general thrives on dependency.

Perhaps the most common myth thrust upon the ESA is that it is somehow fiscally irresponsible to give money directly to families so they can build an education that fits their child outside of a public school. These are the same people who have an unquenchable thirst for the taxpayer dollar. The Kansas educrats are a great, perhaps even the best, example. Going back decades now, they have turned to the judiciary to essentially extort ever-more taxpayer dollars. The courts along with complicit legislative and executive branches have seen to it that every educational malady can be addressed (note: not solved) with more money.

But all of a sudden, when it comes to ESAs, money is not only not the answer, money is actually a problem. Hmmm…..

The cry is that ESAs amount to nothing more than a subsidy for rich families who already have their children enrolled in private schools. There are several salient points that render this claim irrelevant. First, while it’s true that students already enrolled in private schools are eligible for an ESA, that does not mean the families are necessarily “rich.” As pointed out in Arizona ESA families have a lower median income than the state average. And that doesn’t account for the reality that many families struggle to find the means to send their children to a private school.

Furthermore, suddenly it seems, those who believe there is no such thing as enough money for public education decry ESAs as busting the bank or causing fiscal havoc for the state government. The adjoining table shows the reality of ESA spending as compared to public school spending. It’s also peculiar that when it comes to public education there is no such thing as “spending.” On the contrary, the educrats call that public education funding an “investment”, but when it comes to school choice it is considered a “cost,” as described in a report that analyses the “cost” of the Arizona ESA program. Apparently, the half-billion ESA dollars are worthy of scrutiny, but the nearly $13 billion spent on public education are not.

When it comes to the concern over education spending, the establishment is focused on being “penny wise” regarding ESA dollars, but will gladly ignore the “pound foolish” of public education spending.

An excellent example of a ‘choice-ophobe’ is none other than the current governor of Arizona. Katie Hobbs, who succeeded Doug Ducey – the governor who signed the ESA expansion into law – proposed a plan to try to put the kibosh on ESAs in Arizona. Part of her plan is to require “accountability for taxpayer dollars.” But, according to a scathing review of Governor Hobbs’s plan by a Goldwater Institute report, “every family on the ESA program receives thousands of dollars less per child than would be spent on that same child if in the public school system, and every single ESA purchase is already subject to review.” The report says further that “even the state Auditor General confirmed as early as 2020 that ESA misspending rates are extremely low (far lower than other government programs) and that parents have been the ones proactively seeking clarity (particularly under the previous Superintendent of Public Instruction) when navigating the program’s rules about what constitutes an allowable or disallowed purchase.”

Regarding accountability with taxpayer dollars who is more likely to be fiscally responsible, parents who are utilizing limited funding to maximize their children’s educational opportunities, or bureaucrats?

Another favorite complaint of those opposed to freedom of educational choice is that many private schools that receive tuition and other expenses through ESAs do not offer special education services. So what? This argument is part of the educrats arrogance that people are too dumb to make the right choice. If a student doesn’t need special education services – a seemingly shrinking population given SPED funding levels – why should the state dictate that all schools offer SPED services? Here’s a novel idea, if a child needs special ed and a school doesn’t offer it, go somewhere else!

By the way, Governor Hobbs wants to force all ESA schools to provide special ed. After all, government knows best.

Implications for Kansas

Kansas lawmakers should take heed of the educational world around them. It’s time Kansas recognize what other states’ lawmakers are seeing: educational choice is not only good, it’s necessary if the public school system is to get any better at serving the needs of the citizenry – nothing improves the quality or delivery of a service like competition. And who knows better what is the right educational path for children, the parents or the state? It’s also time that one of our nation’s founding principles – freedom of choice – should not exempt the education of our youth.