A look back: How massive strides in education choice made history and set trends in 2023

If 2023 could be summed up in a single word, it would be transformation. 

Florida lawmakers passed House Bill 1, which expanded education choice eligibility to all students in the Sunshine State regardless of household income and converted all the state’s traditional scholarship programs to savings accounts, allowing families to customize their children’s education.  

The result was the largest single-year expansion of education choice participation in U.S. history. A surge of more than 100,000 new students enrolled after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill, giving Florida the nation’s first-, second-, and third-largest K-12 scholarship programs.  Florida’s expansion was part of a wave of landmark legislation that swept the nation this year as 10 states approved universal or near-universal scholarship programs. 

“We are funding students in this state,” state Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, said as the Florida Legislature gave its bill its final approval. “The parents have spoken.” 

Many families had access to an expanded array of educational options for the first time, including the ability to mix and match tutoring programs, curriculum, enrichment activities, and private school programs. Some used their funds to create unique programs that included zoo school and sewing lessons.  Entrepreneurs, including many former district school educators and Black educators, started their own schools and reignited their passion for teaching. Florida Catholic schools, spared the nationwide decline because of school choice scholarships established two decades earlier, experienced a new wave of growth.  

Florida crafted its budget, and, in the fall, state lawmakers met in a special session to accommodate a surge in demand among students with unique abilities. 

Public schools got attention, too. An overlooked provision of HB 1 was designed to free the districts and level the playing field so their schools could compete in the new era of expanded education choice.  

The wave of education choice programs sparked pushback from opponents. Arizona’s new governor, who opposed the universal choice program that her predecessor championed, raised alarming but misleading concerns about the growing program’s impact on her state’s finances.  

Education options in South Carolina, New Hampshire, Arkansas, and Alaska faced lawsuits backed by teachers unions and other opponents. In Wisconsin, the birthplace of the modern-era school choice movement, a group funded by an activist brewery owner asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to end scholarship programs that dated back to 1990. The high court kicked the case to lower courts, where it will likely be heard in the new year. The rush of lawsuits revealed another trend as education choice matures: a shift in legal terrain from federal to state courts.  

In Nebraska will be another key movement battleground in 2024. An army of young adult advocates are stepping up to accept the torch from the movement’s founders and defend the scholarship programs that they say changed their lives for the better. The fate of the Cornhusker state’s first scholarship program will be decided on the 2024 ballot 

 Local planning and zoning boards are also becoming important battlegrounds, particularly to for entrepreneurs seeking to open microschools and other non-traditional learning environments. Even traditional faith-based private schools sometimes fell prey to municipal regulatory hurdles.  

The growing movement sparked new calls for unity to overcome the remaining obstacles. As Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. told the state’s annual charter school conference and school choice summit:  

“The reason we have everybody together is it’s not two separate groups. After the passage of HB 1, it is one movement.” 

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.