Education Savings Account (ESA)
Education savings accounts provide public per-pupil funds—often a percentage of per-student state funding—to families with children who don’t attend public schools that they can use to pay for private school tuition or other education expenses, such as tutoring and homeschooling supplies. Some states restrict ESAs or specific ESA programs within the state to students with disabilities, students attending schools with poor performance, and/or students from low-income families. Recently, more states have begun adopting universal ESAs, which all families can access regardless of income, disability status, or any other qualifying factor. ESA funds are generally given directly to families, often in the form of debit cards with restrictions on how the money can be spent. While ESAs and vouchers are often used interchangeably, what sets ESAs apart from vouchers are that they can be used for a wide array of education expenses, not just private school tuition. (See EdWeek’s 2023 explainer on ESAs.)
School vouchers describe public funds that families can use at private schools of their choice, including those that are religious, to subsidize the cost of student tuition. Many vouchers are restricted to students with disabilities, students attending poor-performing schools, and students from low-income families, but some states have vouchers that are available to any student.
Tax-credit scholarship programs provide scholarships to families that they can use at private schools of their choice, including those that are religious. The scholarships most commonly come from state-authorized nonprofit organizations, which issue the scholarships out of donations that they receive from businesses or individual taxpayers who receive tax credits for those donations. Eligibility can be limited based on family income, disability status, or other factors, or it can be universal.
Tax-Credit Education Savings Account
Tax-Credit ESAs are a less common form of ESA through which families receive a designated, per-pupil amount from a state-authorized nonprofit organization that administers the account. Families can use the funds to cover any educational expense, including private school tuition, tutoring, or homeschooling costs. Businesses and individual taxpayers receive tax credits for donations to those nonprofit organizations.
Universal school choice
Private school choice programs that are open to all families regardless of disability status, income, location, or public school performance. Universal policies have become more popular in recent years.
State and, to a lesser extent, federal policies and programs that allow families to send students to schools that they wouldn’t be assigned to attend in the traditional public school system. This can include charter schools; magnet schools; traditional public schools outside of a family’s assigned school zone, district, or town; homeschooling; and private schools, including those that are religiously affiliated.
Private school choice
Policies and programs that direct state and other public funds to private schools, including religious options, where families can choose to enroll their children.
Public school choice
Policies and programs that allow families to attend public schools other than the school to which a child would normally be assigned. These schools include charter schools, magnet schools, as well as traditional public schools where families proactively decide to enroll their children. This EdWeek tracker is focused on private school choice and does not include data on public school choice programs.
Public schools with a specific focus, such as STEM, performing arts, or career and technical education, that are free to attend and open to all students in a district. Some magnet schools are also open to students outside of a designated district or state and require students to apply to attend.
Schools that receive public funding but typically operate independently of local school districts, with private nonprofits most commonly running them and less often for-profit entities. Districts or state authorizing bodies create contracts, or “charters,” with organizations that want to open charter schools, often for a designated period of time. Charters are tuition-free and are often open to all students in a district or an even broader metro area. However, they tend to have caps on enrollment and decide enrollment based on a lottery system. Because charter schools are a form of public school choice, they are not included in EdWeek’s private school choice tracker. (See EdWeek’s 2018 explainer on charter schools.)
Inter- and intra-district choice
Policies and programs that allow students to attend public schools other than those to which they would normally be assigned. Those schools can be located in the student’s home district but outside of their traditional school zone (intra-district choice) or outside of their home district (inter-district choice). These policies are sometimes referred to as open enrollment.