States have been launching programs for more than 30 years to use taxpayer money to pay for private-school educations for some students.
The latest iteration of these voucher systems has a key new wrinkle: At least nine states have adopted programs with higher limits or no limits on how much families can make and qualify.
At least four of those states that have made most children eligible for taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools are seeing more families using the programs than planned, based on initial data of how many students have been approved. In the other states, it is too soon to know the impact.
It’s especially an issue in states like Arizona and Iowa, where at least some families whose children were already in private school can now take advantage of public funding.
That could set off budget headaches for state governments.
Here are some tips for covering voucher programs and their costs.
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FIND YOUR STATE: THESE HAVE ADOPTED MORE UNIVERSAL VOUCHER PROGRAMS
ARIZONA: Empowerment Scholarship Account has no income limits.
ARKANSAS: Education Freedom Account Program is being phased in. For the current school year, students can qualify if they’re in kindergarten, low-rated schools, have a disability, are experiencing homelessness, have been in the foster care system or have parents who are active-duty miliary personnel.
FLORIDA: Florida Family Empowerment Scholarship has no income limits.
INDIANA: Indiana Choice Scholarship Program is available to students with family incomes less than 400% of the limit for students receiving free or reduced lunch.
IOWA: Students First Education Savings Accounts are available this year to all students enrolled in public schools; income limits are being phased out for those previously in nonpublic schools.
OHIO: EdChoice Scholarship is available to students regardless of family income, though the amounts are lower for higher-income students.
OKLAHOMA: Parental Choice Tax Credit amounts depend on income. The state also has a cap on how much it will spend on the scholarships each year.
UTAH: Utah Fits All Scholarship launches for the 2024-25 school year with no income limits.
WEST VIRGINIA: The Hope Scholarship Program does not accept students currently in nonpublic school, but could for the 2026-27 school year if certain benchmarks are met.
IF YOU ARE IN ANOTHER STATE
Most states have some form of voucher, opportunity scholarship or tax credit. But in most places, the programs have income limits and are not available to students who already attend private schools. EdChoice, an organization that advocates for voucher and similar programs, tracks their status. But because the offerings can change quickly, it’s best to verify information with your state’s education department.
CONSIDER THESE REPORTING THREADS
For states with universal or near-universal programs, a major question is how much they could cost taxpayers – and whether those costs are in line with the state budgets.
To find this out, request current enrollment and cost figures from the state’s education department. Compare those figures to the projections included in state budgets and legislative analyses.
If lawmakers are considering universal voucher-like programs, it’s good to ask those behind the budget estimates what modeling they are using for their cost projections. Experts say that some recent programs have based participation estimates on smaller systems with more rigid income limits, which could lead to projections that are too low for more expansive programs.
Also, ask lawmakers how they would handle budget overruns from the vouchers and whether their legislation has any cost controls built in, such as phase-in periods or caps on spending.
Reporting in your community:
If you are in a state where voucher programs have expanded, find families who have secured a scholarship and ask about their decision and experience. Often the groups that advocated for the systems to be created can help connect journalists with families.
Advocates for public schools, including teachers and families, may feel that voucher programs gut local systems. Ask public school teachers, teachers unions, school boards and/or administrators what they think about the expanded programs.
Advocates for school choice pitch vouchers as a way to give students in low-performing schools a way out – and, increasingly, to give parents control over what their children are taught.
Programs funded through vouchers, tax credits or scholarships have been around since the 1990s and are now available in the majority of states. Whether students who change schools with the use of taxpayer money achieve better educational outcomes is in dispute.
Initially, the programs were designed for lower-income students, but that’s changing. Since last year, nine states have adopted programs that are phasing out, eliminating or significantly raising income limits.
Four of them — Arizona, Florida, Iowa and Ohio — have reported numbers with more approved applications than expected. The states might need to come up with more money for their programs as a result. In the remaining five, it’s too soon to tell the effect.
Even in the states with enrollment over projections, it’s early enough in the school year that the situation is still rife with unknowns, including how many of the families approved for scholarships will use them, how much that will cost, and what lawmakers will propose to do about it.
Voucher supporters say demand exceeding expectations is not a problem.
Opponents of the programs are bracing for lawmakers to attempt to make up for the higher costs by further cutting public school funding, even though lawmakers have not publicly threatened to do so.
Localize It is an occasional feature produced by The Associated Press for its customers’ use. Questions can be directed to Katie Oyan at email@example.com.