Grading the States

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Executive Summary

Public schools remain a source of pride and hope, helping to level the playing field for children from incredibly diverse racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic groups. Even amid concerns and often unsubstantiated criticism, Americans continue to view public schools as a defining hub for their communities. In the spring of 2001, a national poll found that Americans ranked public schools as “the most important public institution in the community” by at least a five-to-one margin over hospitals, churches and other institutions. Nonetheless, within the past two decades, there has been a fervent push by those interested in privatization who seek to de-prioritize the importance of public schools and effectively undermine their functionality. Ignoring these attacks, most parents and citizens understand that public schools provide a critical service to American society by educating the majority of students with a base level of accountability while protecting their civil rights in the classroom. Moreover, a recent poll conducted in October of 2017 found that among all registered voters, only 40 percent supported vouchers while 55 percent are opposed. This number further decreases to 23 percent with opposition at 70 percent when voters were asked to consider support if it meant less money for public schools.

With the ongoing debate on the relevance and benefit of public schools versus private schools, the historical context of this debate must be understood. The commitment to a free education for American children has its roots in the 17th century and has evolved along with the laws of the nation to include a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all children. Those of privilege have always understood that education is the cornerstone to success and inclusion in society. Yet the reality is that disadvantaged groups including African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, women, the poor, those with disabilities and others have always had to fight for inclusion. For many generations, structural racism inherent in American society maintained a segregated system for African Americans and people of color. From passage of Massachusetts’s first compulsory education law to present day, historically disenfranchised communities have fought for the right to receive a free education.

Though the decision in Brown v. Board of Education ended legal segregation within schools, southern communities devised creative tactics such as vouchers to evade the Supreme Court’s desegregation edict. For instance, the Southern Manifesto, a compact amongst Southern states was developed to provide vouchers to White students to maintain an exclusive, White-only education system. Southern legislators in Virginia passed tuition-grant laws permitting parents to use tax-funded vouchers to send their children to private, non-sectarian schools—otherwise known as “segregation academies”46 or “white flight” academies. Fortunately for our society, the Supreme Court eventually declared this practice unconstitutional in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. Despite the Court’s rebuke of vouchers to evade integration efforts, the idea of using public dollars to support privatized education began to take shape.

The public education system was developed to serve all children and can continue to do so with the appropriate support from the federal, state and local levels. Public schools offer a rich opportunity for all children to learn from their peers of other racial, ethnic, religious or other identities. Private schools, including charters, were not created to serve all children. Although parents always have a right to send their children to private schools at their own expense, they are not and never can be the model for educating of all this nation’s children, nor should they be supported by public dollars.

The Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education support public schools that offer a full and rich curriculum for all children and are subject to democratic control by members of their community. Public schools should be resourced to meet the needs of their students, with additional support for those students with the greatest needs. They should be managed by teachers, principals and superintendents with exacting standards of professionalism and expertise with support from parents and families and communities alike. Everyone pays taxes to support public schools whether or not they have children attending them. Public schools belong to the public. The purpose of public education is not simply to pass a test, but to enable every student achieve her or his full potential and to help them become responsible citizens of their community and society. In summary, public education is a pillar of our democratic society, that should be properly supported and should provide all students with a foundation for success throughout their lives.


The following major categories, composed of multiple important components, were used to assess each state’s resistance to the privatization of public education. These broad categories are:

  • Types and Extent of Privatization
  • Civil Rights Protections
  • Accountability, Regulations and Oversight
  • Transparency
  • Other Factors (charter schools)

Components within each category were assigned a numerical value as determined by the importance of the component. These components indicated either laws intended to support privatized school choice, the expansion of for-profit school governance, or policies that weakened transparency, accountability or civil rights protections. Certain charter school components were analyzed separately from other privatization programs because of their uniqueness to charter school programs and laws.

Using the existence of “no school privatization” laws as the baseline, each state is assigned a starting value of 100 points. Points were deducted based upon the existence of the components identified and a grade was assigned based on their overall score. Further information regarding the sources used and assumptions made during the grading process can be found in the Appendix following this report.

Major Findings

Overall grades were assigned based on the extent of privatized school choice in the form of vouchers, neo-vouchers and charter schools, as well as the quality of the state’s laws that promoted accountability, oversight, transparency and civil rights. States earned an A+ rating for successfully putting all of their resources to supporting public schools and successfully resisting public funding for privatized alternatives. The states with the best overall grades for resisting school privatization are predominantly rural states with a strong commitment to community public schools and an aversion to public dollars leaving already cash-strapped rural schools. The states that received overall grades of A+ are Nebraska, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Kentucky and South Dakota received an A. However, rural state support for public education is not a universal pattern. Several rural states such as Oklahoma, Utah and Wisconsin earned grades of F. On the other hand, Kentucky’s grade of A is likely to drop because it recently passed a charter school law but has not yet passed enacting legislation that we could rate. Charter schools were also not funded in Kentucky’s 2018 budget.

There are 22 states with grades between a C and a B+. Six states and the District of Columbia received a grade of D or D+ and 17 received a grade of F.

In addition to giving each state an overall grade, we assigned grades for voucher and charter policies as well. There are 22 states that earned an A+ for resisting attempts to give public funds in the form of vouchers and/or neo-vouchers to their public schools.

The six states with an A+ for their charter laws are Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia. However, there were also 37 states plus the District of Columbia that received a Grade of F based on their charter laws — states that embrace for-profit charter management, weak accountability and other factors that make their charter schools less accountable to the public.

The state with the overall best score (99.5) is Nebraska; the state with the worse score is Arizona (31.25). Next to worst and not far behind Arizona, is Florida. Below find the states and the District of Columbia listed in rank order by overall, voucher and charter school scores.

Overall Rank (Score) Rank by Voucher Policy Rank by Charter Policy
  1. Nebraska (99.5)
  2. North Dakota (99.25)
  3. West Virginia (99)
  4. South Dakota (90.5)
  5. Kentucky (89.5)
  6. Wyoming (86.75)
  7. Washington (86)
  8. Vermont (85.75)
  9. Montana (85)
  10. Connecticut (79)
  11. Missouri (78.5)
  12. Texas (77.5)
  13. Delaware (76.75)
  14. Massachusetts (76.5)
  15. New York (76.25)
  16. New Mexico (76)
  17. New Jersey (75.5)
  18. Virginia (75.25)
  19. Hawaii (75)
  20. Minnesota (75)
  21. Idaho (74.75)
  22. Kansas (74.5)
  23. Maryland (73.75)
  24. Oregon (73.5)
  25. Alaska (73.25)
  26. Colorado (71)
  27. Michigan (70.5)
  28. California (66.75)
  29. Iowa (66)
  30. Maine (65.75)
  31. Alabama (64.5)
  32. Tennessee (63.75)
  33. Dist. of Columbia (63.5)
  34. Rhode Island (63.5)
  35. Arkansas (60.25)
  36. Utah (58)
  37. South Carolina (57.5)
  38. Pennsylvania (56.5)
  39. Ohio (55.25)
  40. Mississippi (54.5)
  41. Illinois (53.5)
  42. New Hampshire (52.75)
  43. Louisiana (47.75)
  44. Wisconsin (47.25)
  45. Oklahoma (47)
  46. Indiana (45)
  47. Nevada (42.5)
  48. North Carolina (42.25)
  49. Georgia (39.25)
  50. Florida (35.5)
  51. Arizona (31.25)
  1. California
  2. Delaware
  3. Idaho
  4. Kentucky
  5. Michigan
  6. Missouri
  7. Colorado
  8. Texas
  9. Alaska
  10. Hawaii
  11. Massachusetts
  12. Minnesota
  13. Nebraska
  14. New Mexico
  15. Washington
  16. North Dakota
  17. Wyoming
  18. Connecticut
  19. New Jersey
  20. New York
  21. Oregon
  22. West Virginia
  23. South Dakota
  24. Maryland
  25. Maine
  26. Vermont
  27. Tennessee
  28. Dist. of Columbia
  29. Iowa
  30. Montana
  31. Arkansas
  32. Virginia
  33. South Carolina
  34. Kansas
  35. Utah
  36. Alabama
  37. Rhode Island
  38. Wisconsin
  39. Pennsylvania
  40. Ohio
  41. Illinois
  42. New Hampshire
  43. Mississippi
  44. Louisiana
  45. Indiana
  46. Oklahoma
  47. North Carolina
  48. Nevada
  49. Georgia
  50. Arizona
  51. Florida
  1. Nebraska
  2. North Dakota
  3. West Virginia
  4. South Dakota
  5. Montana
  6. Vermont
  7. Virginia
  8. Kansas
  9. Kentucky
  10. Wyoming
  11. Maryland
  12. Washington
  13. Alabama
  14. Mississippi
  15. Iowa
  16. Rhode Island
  17. Connecticut
  18. Maine
  19. Missouri
  20. Tennessee
  21. Dist. of Columbia
  22. Texas
  23. Oklahoma
  24. New York
  25. Massachusetts
  26. Florida
  27. Delaware
  28. New Mexico
  29. New Jersey
  30. Louisiana
  31. Arkansas
  32. Hawaii
  33. Minnesota
  34. Ohio
  35. New Hampshire
  36. Pennsylvania
  37. Idaho
  38. Illinois
  39. Oregon
  40. Utah
  41. Alaska
  42. Indiana
  43. Nevada
  44. South Carolina
  45. North Carolina
  46. Georgia
  47. Colorado
  48. Michigan
  49. Arizona
  50. California
  51. Wisconsin

Categorical findings:


Vouchers are grants of public school funds used to support tuition at private elementary and secondary schools. These grants are given to parents who deposit them with a private or religious-affiliated school. Neo-vouchers are voucher-like programs that exist to circumvent legal restrictions against giving public money to private or religious-affiliated schools. Our report examined two neo-voucher programs—Education Savings or Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) and Tuition Tax-Credit Programs.
Education Savings Accounts or Education Scholarship Accounts are set up differently depending on the state. These programs allow tax dollars (typically 90% of what the public school would have spent), to be used toward certain educational expenses including tuition and fees at private elementary and secondary schools, online programs, support and therapy services, homeschooling and college tuition. Typically, accounts are established in the name of the student and funds are deposited, often on a debit card, for use by the family.
Tuition Tax-Credit Scholarship Programs (TTCs) grant businesses and sometimes individual taxpayers credits against their state income taxes for contributions to School Tuition Organizations (STOs). STOs then award tuition grants to families for private schools. The portion of the tax credit varies from state to state, with some states awarding a 100% credit. In some cases, the person who makes the donation can also recommend who is to receive the scholarship.
What follows are significant findings in this category.

Traditional Voucher States

  • There are 15 states and the District of Columbia with traditional voucher laws.
  • Nine states plus the District of Columbia do not require students to take the same state tests, despite national mandates for public school students.
  • Arkansas, Maine and North Carolina are the least accountable states for their traditional voucher programs.
  • Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio and Utah also have particularly unaccountable programs. For instance, Florida does not require state testing, mandate teacher certification, or even school accreditation for their voucher schools.
  • Especially troubling is the fact that 7 states — Arkansas, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oklahoma fail to require background checks for teachers and employees in voucher receiving schools.
  • Despite claims that vouchers were not meant to support students already enrolled in private schools, 12 states and the District of Columbia do not prohibit state support of current private school students, and 6 of these same states even fail to include a requirement or give priority to students from families with low socioeconomic status.
  • Thirteen (13) states and the District of Columbia have no public transparency required for the governance and meetings of schools receiving funds for these state-supported traditional voucher programs.

Neo-Voucher States

  • Of the 6 states with Education Savings Account programs, all of them divert funding from students in the public school system where the overwhelming majority of students are enrolled.
  • Particularly alarming is the fact that except for Florida and Nevada, none of the states with ESA programs required state testing or prior public school enrollment.
  • Of the 18 states with Tuition Tax-Credit Programs, 9 fail to require any accreditation of the schools that receive a benefit from such Tuition Tax-Credit Programs. Arizona has the worst accountability over their Tuition Tax-Credit Programs.
  • South Dakota, Virginia and Illinois’ Tuition Tax-Credit Programs have the worst level of public transparency, failing all 7 categories.


Charter schools are governed by private, incorporated boards that receive public funding to run the charter school. Depending on the state, charters may be non-profit, for profit, or a non-profit operated by a for-profit management company. Some charter schools are brick and mortar schools while others are online schools.

  • Of the 44 states and District of Columbia with charter laws, 28 of these states and the District of Columbia fail to require the same teacher certification as traditional public schools and 27 states and the District of Columbia do not prioritize admissions for students from families with low SES status or other at-risk conditions while thirty states and the District of Columbia allow enrollment advantage for children of board members, employees, and/or other groups.
  • Thirty-eight (38) of the states and the District of Columbia have no required transparency provisions regulating the spending and funding by the charter school’s educational service providers (ESP).
  • California had the largest number of students enrolled in charter schools (568,800, representing over 9 percent of all public school students in the state), and the District of Columbia had the highest percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools (43 percent, representing 35,800 students). However, both of these states received F’s for their lack of accountability, transparency and failure to protect the civil rights of students. In contrast, eight states had less than 1 percent of their public school students enrolled in charter schools in fall 2015: Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.
  • Within the charter school context, only Alaska and Kansas fail to provide additional state and local protections for charter school students such as protections for LGBTQ students.
  • Of the 44 states and the District of Columbia with charter school laws, students with disabilities are particularly disadvantaged in 39 states and the District of Columbia, which do not clearly establish the provision of services.
  • Twenty-two (22) states do not require that the charter school return its taxpayer purchased assets and/or property back to the public if the charter school shuts down or fails.

Overall Civil Rights Protections

  • Of the over three quarters (75%) of all states with privatization programs, 19 states fail to include additional state and local civil rights protections for students, for example, protections for LGBTQ students. We found only one state, Maryland, that mandates civil rights protections for LGBTQ students who attend private schools with a voucher. While southern states often take the brunt of ire from civil rights advocates, 10 states on this list are in the North, Northeast or Midwest of the country.
  • Among the states with vouchers, ESAs and Tuition Tax-Credit programs, despite the existence of increasing percentages of English Language Learners in the classroom, only Iowa has a mandate that English language learners must receive instruction in English until they are fluent.
  • Twenty-three (23) states and the District of Columbia fail to specifically protect students in privatization programs against religious discrimination and all these same states fail to enable students who receive public support for tuition to opt out of the religious activities.
  • Eighteen (18) states have programs that fail to mandate services for students with disabilities, including programs that are intended to serve that student population.
State Grade
Alabama D+
Alaska C
Arizona F
Arkansas F
California D+
Colorado C
Connecticut C+
District of Columbia D
Delaware C+
Florida F
Georgia F
Hawaii C+
Idaho C+
Illinois F
Indiana F
Iowa D+
Kansas C+
Kentucky A
Louisiana F
Maine D+
Maryland C
Massachusetts C+
Michigan C
Minnesota C+
Mississippi F
Missouri C+
Montana B+
Nebraska A+
Nevada F
New Hampshire F
New Jersey C+
New Mexico C+
New York C+
North Carolina F
North Dakota A+
Ohio F
Oklahoma F
Oregon C
Pennsylvania F
Rhode Island D
South Carolina F
South Dakota A
Tennessee D
Texas C+
Utah F
Vermont B+
Virginia C+
Washington B+
West Virginia A+
Wisconsin F
Wyoming B+

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For full footnotes and appendix, please download the full report [PDF].