In Florida, one school choice program got 75,000 applications for 68,000 spots. In North Carolina, 5,558 students applied for a program with 2,400 seats.
But in Arizona, the education savings accounts program is capped at 5,500 students. Still, just 700 students took part in the programs last year.
What makes the difference?
Advocates of school choice pointed to several factors, but one stands out: Parents must know about their options.
“The bottom line is the [school choice] programs are extremely popular where parents think it’s real,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has three choice programs — a well-established one in Milwaukee, a 4-year-old program in Racine, and a statewide program that debuted last summer.
In all three, parents in schools deemed to be failing apply directly to their home schools for vouchers or publicly funded scholarships that allow them to attend the private school of their choice.
By Feb. 1, parents in Racine and Milwaukee know which schools are eligible to accept students and which schools’ students are eligible to participate. Then, the race is on because demand far exceeds supply in both programs.
But in the statewide program, it’s another story. More than 2,000 students applied for 500 spots when the program debuted last summer, and many of the schools that sought to participate were not approved.
This year, many of those schools applied again and were approved, and confusion has waned. As a result, nearly 4,000 have applied, but most have applied for schools approved the first year.
“In year two, you had increased demand where people thought it was real, and decreased demand for schools wanting to get [approved] the second time,” Bender said.
Different programs have different eligibility requirements. Some place income restrictions on parents; some allow only students from failing schools, said Jeff Reed, communications director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
Universally available programs eliminate some confusion, Reed said. But even with programs such as Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship — available to all Georgia students — funding caps limit participation.
Tax-credit scholarships, unlike vouchers, are funded by private donations made to a nonprofit, which distributes scholarships to students. Donors receive a tax credit.
In Georgia, donors reached the $58 million cap in the first three weeks of the year, and taxpayers are continuing to contact scholarship organizations about next year, said Lisa Kelly, president and executive director of GOAL, Georgia’s largest scholarship organization.
GOAL consistently receives more requests from parents than it can meet, and grassroots support is strong in Georgia because Georgians enjoy “being able to be part of the solution,” and scholarship recipients are grateful to have options, she said.
But building that grassroots knowledge and support for the program can take time.
Participation in Arizona’s education savings account program has not reached its cap since the program began in 2011, but parents in the program love it, says Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute. He added:
It’s not that they need to be won over, but you need to tell them. That’s a different style effort than getting the bill passed.
Many school choice proponents are working to get the word to parents, but the responsibility lies with the respective states, Reed said.
“These are government programs, at the end of the day,” the Friedman Foundation spokesman said, adding:
Departments of education and departments of revenue oversee these programs. I’m not saying they have to spend more money on it, but state agencies could do a better job of making sure parents are aware of these programs through existing means.