Private School Choice Policies in the Era of COVID-19

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Written by: Ben Erwin and Emily Brixey
May 18, 2021

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, school choice policies have remained prominent in state policy conversations. A supreme court ruling, the expenditure of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds and a significant increase in school choice legislation have amplified the private school choice debate in some states.

Current Landscape

Vouchers remain the most common private school choice mechanism. Popularity has increased for scholarship tax credit programs, which provide a tax credit to businesses and individual taxpayers for donating funds to scholarship-granting organizations. All such programs specify student eligibility requirements, and most set scholarship amounts in state policy. Education savings accounts (ESA) grant eligible students an account with funding equal to or less than the state’s per-pupil expenditure to be used on education services, including tutoring, curriculum and private school tuition.

While many states have private school choice programs on the books, some states have used CARES Act dollars to temporarily support new private school choice efforts to assist eligible families impacted by the pandemic. New Hampshire’s initial Governors Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund report stated, “The second use of GEER Funds will be through grant agreements between the NHDOR [New Hampshire Department of Revenue] and two established New Hampshire scholarship funds that administer K-12 scholarships ... to attend nonpublic schools.” In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster attempted to use $32 million of GEER funds to create the Safe Access to Flexible Education grant program, although the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled this program was unconstitutional.

Emerging Trends

In the 2021 legislative session, states have proposed over 200 bills on private school choice issues; a significant increase from previous legislative sessions. Of these bills, 13 have been enacted — with some especially expansive programs among them.

Florida and Indiana each expanded existing programs, while both Kentucky and West Virginia enacted new private school choice programs in 2021. Kentucky H.B. 563 creates a program that represents a new take on scholarship tax credits by granting an ESA to students rather than awarding scholarships to nonpublic schools. West Virginia H.B. 2013 created one of the most expansive ESA programs in the nation. Under the Hope Scholarship program, all public school students in the state are eligible for an account, which may be used on a variety of education-related expenses, including tutoring and nonpublic school tuition.

A few states are considering providing vouchers or tax credits to cover remote learning costs or other education expenses incurred during the pandemic. According to Edchoice, eight states have credits or deductions for individual education expenses. Illinois is one state with a tax credit or deduction for educational expenses on the books, and the Legislature is currently considering a new credit that would help families to address the new instructional realities of the current education landscape. The legislation would provide credits for educational expenses, including remote learning technology and costs associated with homeschool or learning pod instruction.

The Massachusetts Legislature is considering a bill that would provide tax credits for expenses associated with remote learning. Families can claim tax credits for the cost of electronic devices, wireless internet and other necessities for continuous remote learning.

Traditional private school choice policies continue to garner attention nationally and at the state level. The education landscape continues to shift in concert with expansions of choice or choice-related policies during the pandemic. For more research on private school choice see our School Choice Key Issues page and our latest 50-State Comparison on Private School Choice Programs.

Author profile

Ben Erwin

Ben Erwin

Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States |

As a policy analyst, Ben works on tracking legislation, answering information requests and contributing to other Policy Team projects. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, he taught high school social studies in Kentucky and worked in education policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures. He earned a master's degree in education policy from the University of Colorado Boulder and a bachelor's degree in history and education from Transylvania University.

Author profile

Emily Brixey

Emily Brixey

Policy Researcher at Education Commission of the States

As a policy researcher, Emily works on answering information requests and collecting data related to state education policy. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Emily started pursuing her doctorate in public affairs and worked as a budget analyst at the Oregon Capitol. Emily earned her bachelor’s degree in economics from Willamette University and is currently working on her dissertation at the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs.

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