School choice is on the rise. In the last few decades, families have benefited from an explosion of educational options. But this growth of school choice has not been limited to charter schools or open-enrollment policies; private school choice policies and programs have also flourished in the past twenty years. By January 2021, thirty states (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) had some form of private school choice program. An additional testament to this growth is the variety of policies on offer. It’s not just vouchers, but also Educational Savings Accounts, Tax Credit Scholarships, and Individual Tax Credits.
Now, a study by two researchers from the University of Arkansas attempts to identify the factors that predict states’ adoption of these policies. Yujie Sude and Patrick J. Wolf found that different political, economic, and educational variables contribute to the adoption by states of different private school choice programs. They also tested the soundness of their models by predicting which states would be the most, and which the least, likely to adopt private school choice programs.
Sude and Wolf identified four categories of private school choice policies: 1) school vouchers, in which families use funds from the government to help pay for tuition at a private school; 2) Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs), into which the government contributes funds for families to use toward educational expenses; 3) Tax Credit Scholarships (TCSs), which allow taxpayers (individual or corporate) to earn tax credits by contributing to non-profit organizations that offer private school scholarships; and 4) Individual Tax Credits, which provide families tax relief for their own approved educational expenses. The first two programs reallocate government funds that would otherwise be sent directly to local school districts. The last two programs create incentives for individuals to use nongovernmental funds to promote private school choice.
Sude and Wolf saw such policies being adopted through the intersection of three forces—politics, resources, and educational needs. This led to the three hypotheses of their study: 1) that all three forces have some association with private school choice adoption; 2) that political factors will be the most consistent predictors of the states that adopt private school choice policies; and 3) that economic factors will be more reliable predictors of adoption than educational need factors.
To test their hypotheses, the authors analyzed data from forty-nine states over a period of seventeen years (2000 to 2016). Their models included 833 state-year observations, although missing data reduced that number to 784 in one of their models. They built several models to predict the likelihood a state without a private school choice policy would remain that way. Once a state adopted a private school choice program, it was dropped from the models.
Their findings partially confirmed their hypotheses. Political forces do play the strongest role in adoption. Not surprisingly, a Republican-controlled legislature and a Republican governor were the two most significant political factors correlated with private school choice policies. However, the authors noted that these effects faded when controlling for other social factors such as poverty and high school graduation rates. The economic factor that was the most consistent predictor of adoption was per capita GDP. Sude and Wolf found that a lower per capita GDP correlated with adoption, meaning that poorer states were more likely to adopt a private school choice program. The authors hypothesized that this resulted from less wealthy states wanting to save money. Funding private school choice options is cheaper than running traditional schools. In the same vein, the educational need factor most associated with adoption was the average per pupil expenditure of the state. The less a state spent on each public school student, the more likely it was to adopt a choice program.
The authors also analyzed which factors predict specific private school choice policies. Here, the results are less clear and consistent. Surprisingly, almost none of the above factors were significant predictors of voucher adoption. A state’s proportion of minority students was found to be a positive predictor of tax credit scholarship adoption. Having a Republican governor was a strong predictor of adopting an Individual Tax Credit policy, as was a state’s share of students already enrolled in private schools. States with lower income and high school graduation rates were more likely to adopt an Individual Tax Credit policy, but so were states with lower poverty rates, muddling the picture and defying the expectations of the authors. ESAs were too new and lacked enough data to warrant their own predictive model in the study.
To test the soundness of their models, Sude and Wolf used them to predict which of the nineteen states without private school choice policies at the end of their study would be the most likely to adopt them. Because their data ended in 2016, they had more than five years of real-world events against which to compare their predictions. They predicted that Idaho, Missouri, Kentucky, Hawaii, and Michigan would be the states most likely to adopt some form of private school choice policy. And in fact, Kentucky and Missouri did enact tax-credit funded ESA programs in 2021. While Idaho did not enact a private school choice policy via legislation, the governor did repurpose Covid relief funds into a temporary ESA program by executive order.
Sude and Wolf also predicted the states with the least likelihood of adopting a private school choice policy: New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Alaska, and California. None of those states has done so. In the authors’ analysis, Democratically-controlled legislatures and governorships, along with strong teachers unions, prevent most of these states from adopting private school choice policies. Alaska, while a Republican stronghold, has a dearth of private schools, limiting the usefulness of a private school choice program.
Advocates for school choice have long maintained that there is no effective “one-size-fits-all” model for education. As the school choice movement evolves, this adage becomes true even for different categories of school choice. Private school choice programs are no longer limited to vouchers, and now include various reallocations of governmental and nongovernmental funds. Sude and Wolf’s research shows that many factors play into states’ adoption of these policies, yielding surprising results. Hopefully, their work inspires more researchers to study this important topic and create a clearer picture of private school choice adoption in America.
SOURCE: Yujie Sude and Patrick J. Wolf, “Whose Turn Now? The Enactment & Expansion of Private School Choice Programs across the US,” EdWorkingPaper: 21-498 (2021). Retrieved from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.