State Legislatures Are Waging War on Public Schools

A new report ranks US states in terms of how well their legislatures are protecting public schools and the students who attend them. From expanding charters to launching illiberal attacks on kids and families, a worrying number of states failed the test.

State legislatures play an enormous role in making public school systems functional and safe. (SDI Productions / Getty Images)

On February 8, sixteen-year-old nonbinary sophomore Nex Benedict died of causes that have yet to be explained to the public. The day before, Nex had told a police officer they were beaten by three schoolmates in a bathroom at their Oklahoma high school. Sue Benedict, Nex’s grandmother and adoptive parent, told the Independent that Nex suffered from identity-based bullying, beginning shortly after Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt signed a law forcing trans students to use bathrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates.

In addition to the bathroom ban, Stitt has signed several other laws targeting trans youth. There are currently fifty-four other anti-LGBTQ bills before the Oklahoma legislature. While the exact cause of Nex’s death remains unverified, it’s clear that the violence preceding it occurred in an increasingly hostile environment for LGBTQ youth in the state of Oklahoma.

According to the American Medical Association and the National Institutes of Health, bathroom bans put vulnerable kids at risk for serious harm. And even when anti-LGBTQ laws don’t pass, research indicates that young people are adversely affected by proposed legislation that puts their safety and humanity up for debate, fueling a climate of tension and suspicion which can exacerbate bullying behavior and mental health issues. Per 2019 data, majorities of LGBTQ kids have experienced harassment or bullying in school, leading to increased absences and potentially dire long-term consequences. But LGBTQ students in schools with LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and policies are more likely to feel safe and report that their peers accept them.

In other words, adults — from educators to social media personalities to lawmakers — set a tone that appears to be highly determinative of whether school is a place where kids like Nex can safely be themselves.

This pattern is hardly restricted to LGBTQ issues. State-level legislation shapes the societies in which kids live and schools operate. For this reason “Public Schooling in America,” the latest data-packed national report card from the Network for Public Education (NPE), focuses on the extent to which each state legislature protects young people, both in and out of public school systems.

While the previous two NPE report cards have focused primarily on school privatization, this one goes further, connecting the dots between seemingly distinct attacks on public schooling that are advancing as part of the push for Christian nationalism: charter and voucher expansion, publicly funded homeschooling, defunding of public schools, and illiberal restrictions on kids and educators.

Using a points system based on how statehouses treat the above topics, NPE awarded “A” grades to five states, both red and blue, that demonstrate a strong commitment to students and democratically governed public schools: 1) North Dakota, 2) Connecticut, 3) Vermont, 4) Illinois, and 5) Nebraska. Seventeen states — all but two of which are governed by a Republican trifecta — earned “F” grades. The poorest scoring of these “F” states will come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to school privatization or the anti-LGBTQ laws curtailing kids’ and educators’ rights: 47) Arkansas, 48) North Carolina, 49) Utah, 50) Arizona, and 51) Florida.

Ultimately the report underscores a critical point: while schools are directly tasked with prioritizing child well-being and student safety, they don’t perform these duties in a vacuum. State legislatures play an enormous role in making public school systems functional and safe — or, in many cases, severely undermining them.

Privatization: Vouchers and Charters

Vouchers, which subtract taxpayer dollars from public education and turn them over to privately operated schools and service providers (including for-profit and religious schools), have notched considerable statehouse wins in recent years. In 2023 alone, seven states launched new voucher plans, while others made existing programs available to wealthy families who have never sent their kids to public schools.

Significantly, while voucher programs’ costs to taxpayers have mushroomed since 2000, bathing state budgets in red ink, overall private school enrollment actually decreased from 11.38 percent in 1999 to 9.97 percent in 2021. That’s because vouchers are most popular among privileged parents whose kids were already attending private schools. These privatization schemes may be propping up academically impoverished religious schools, but they are not incentivizing an exodus from public education.

Vouchers take various forms, including traditional vouchers or tuition grants, tuition tax-credit scholarship programs (TTCs), and education savings accounts (ESAs), which turn large sums of public money over to parents with virtually no strings attached. With all vouchers, and ESAs in particular, there are few or no safeguards to prevent fraud or ensure that kids are actually learning core subjects.

Vouchers are a preferred tool of religious extremists seeking state-funded Christian education, but most state constitutions have clauses prohibiting public funding of religious institutions. ESAs and TTCs are designed to evade these restrictions by funding families rather than schools (ESAs), or allowing people to donate to private school scholarships instead of paying their taxes (TTCs). Generally speaking, voucher-funded private schooling is rife with discrimination that would be illegal in public school systems. A 2023 report by the Education Voters of Pennsylvania, for example, found that 100 percent of surveyed voucher schools have policies that overtly discriminate against kids based on LGBTQ identity, disability status, academic ability, religion, pregnancy or abortion history, or other factors.

Vouchers have made splashier headlines than charter schools of late, as Republicans abandon the decades-old bipartisan education reform truce. But Christian nationalists have also been using charter schools to press their agenda, with a significant increase in right-wing “faith-friendly,” “classical,” or “back-to-basics” charter schools (and at least one officially religious church-run charter school on track to open in Oklahoma). Another in-depth report from NPE documents this rise, noting that these charter schools, which market themselves to conservative white families, are nearly twice as likely to be run by for-profit corporations as the charter sector at large.

The growth of online charter schools, which have terrible academic track records, and charter schools run for a profit has continued apace. Thirty-five states allow for-profit corporations to manage nonprofit charter schools, and in six states (Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, and West Virginia), for-profits manage over 30 percent of all charter schools. Fraud and mismanagement result in the frequent shuttering of publicly funded charter schools, sometimes leaving families in the lurch mid–school year. Since 2019, NPE has been collecting news stories of charter school malfeasance and abrupt closures (charter churn). Thirteen states have racked up at least fifty such reports: California takes the prize for one hundred and eighty charter scandal stories, and Pennsylvania comes in second.

Though often cleverly referred to as “public,” charter schools are not equally accessible by all kids. In School’s Choice, researchers Wagma Mommandi and Kevin Welner show how charter schools use branding and promotional strategies to sway enrollment toward students with more resources and fewer needs than the general population.

In an even more blatant example of the nonpublic nature of charter schools, NPE points to the phenomenon of workplace charters. Under Florida law, such schools are permitted to restrict enrollment to the children of a specific firm’s employees — functioning as a form of labor discipline reminiscent of the last century’s coal “company towns.” At the Villages Charter School (VCS)’s six campuses, parental employment is verified monthly. If a VCS parent hates working at the Villages (a large, highly profitable retirement community) and wants to quit, they had better be prepared to upend their kids’ educational and social lives.


The number of homeschooling families spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic and has continued to rise. Journalists at the Washington Post found a 51 percent increase over the past six years in states where it’s possible to track homeschooling trends. Once a practice found mainly among fundamentalist Christians in rural areas, it is now the fastest growing education sector.

Thirteen states directly subsidize homeschooling through vouchers or tax credits. A flourishing tech-based industry (including charter schools for homeschooling families) has emerged to cash in on these state subsidies, with parents putting taxpayer dollars to questionable uses. In Arizona, a proliferation of news stories has documented homeschooling families spending ESA money on things like LEGO sets, snowboarding trips, ninja training, and aeroponic indoor gardens. Very few states have regulations in place to ensure that homeschooled children are receiving basic academic instruction. In fact, most states allow parents to issue a diploma with no verification of student learning.

Culture warriors like Chaya Raichik have used the slippery concept of “grooming” to gin up fears about adults hurting kids in public schools. In reality, because public schools are governed by strict child safety laws including background checks and mandated reporting, they are much more likely to detect and prevent abuse than minimally regulated private schools and totally unregulated homes. Eleven states don’t even require parents to report that they’re homeschooling their kids, while fourteen more just require a onetime notice with no follow-up. Only Pennsylvania and Arkansas conduct any form of background check on homeschooling parents.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education has cataloged about one hundred and eighty horrific stories of homeschooled children suffering and even dying from neglect, abuse, and torture in their educational settings. Nicole and Jasmine Snyder, for example, experienced things like having their heads bashed against a wall, being forced to stand in a dark hallway for long stretches, and having urine and feces smeared on their faces as punishment for potty accidents. They starved to death in 2016 and 2017, weighing five and ten pounds respectively. Because they were homeschooled, no one outside the family had any idea the abuse was happening. Their murders were not revealed until 2021.

Public School Financing

Researchers have clearly established the relationship between school funding and student learning outcomes. And because school funding enables everything from adequate staff-to-student ratios to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to essential structural repairs, it’s undeniably a student safety issue.

To rank school funding, NPE looked at the following metrics from the Education Law Center, which issues an annual school funding report: funding levels (cost-adjusted, per-pupil revenue from state and local sources), funding distribution (how states allocate funds to high-needs schools serving economically disadvantaged students), and funding effort (the relationship between a state’s GDP and its investment in schools). They also looked at average teacher salaries, adjusted for each state’s cost of living.

The states that earned the most points for funding public education and narrowing resource discrepancies were New York, New Jersey, and Wyoming. Florida lost every single available point for school funding, while Arizona, Idaho, and Nevada lost all but one. Washington, DC, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont all stand out for having exceptionally low teacher pay despite relatively high per-pupil spending.

It’s important to recognize that numerous GOP-controlled states are in the process of defunding their public schools — through spending cuts and policies that drain public coffers by enabling skyrocketing voucher costs coupled with generous tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. If this experiment is allowed to continue, it will ultimately disfigure the landscape of community life and civic participation.

Freedom to Teach and Learn

Because the right-wing attacks on students and educators have ramped up in conjunction with efforts to defund public schools and boost private alternatives, this NPE report card includes a new category, Freedom to Teach and Learn, which encompasses a range of factors pertaining to student safety and well-being: laws protecting LGBTQ students in public schools, corporal punishment bans, censorship and curriculum bans, collective bargaining for teachers, and teacher quality.

LGBTQ students report bullying and cyberbullying at twice the rate of their straight, cisgender peers. All states have laws that prohibit bullying in public schools, but not all those laws explicitly include LGBTQ students. According to research by GLSEN, school staff in states with comprehensive anti-bullying and antidiscrimination protections for LGBTQ students are significantly more likely to intervene when they overhear anti-LGBTQ commentary. Oklahoma, where Nex complained of gender identity-based bullying and harassment before losing their life at sixteen, is one of twenty-four states whose anti-bullying laws do not enumerate LGBTQ identity as a protected category.

Fifteen states explicitly allow schools to use corporal punishment, such as paddling, shaking, and hitting students, while seven more are silent on the issue. Of the states that explicitly ban corporal punishment in public schools, only three extend this protection to students in private school. Research has demonstrated that corporal punishment is both counterproductive and harmful, and that certain groups of students (e.g., black students and students with disabilities) are much more likely to be physically disciplined in school.

With right-wing activists portraying K-12 public schools as hotbeds of “woke” propaganda, numerous states have passed laws that prevent or discourage schools from offering robust curriculum and discussion related to topics like the history of American slavery and racism, gender, and sexual orientation. In addition to these “divisive concept” bans and laws promoting book bans, NPE also looked at the percentage of students in a given state who are enrolled in public school districts that are actively banning books.

When teachers collectively bargain with district school boards, they’re able to speak up in defense of essential student needs like manageable class sizes, as well as larger systemic issues impacting kids and communities. Teachers across the United States have bargained for the common good in recent years, winning everything from student mental health supports to protections for undocumented students. And because teachers with collective bargaining rights are able to secure better pay and benefits, states that allow teacher collective bargaining are in a better position to combat the K-12 teacher shortage crisis. For these reasons, NPE included teacher collective bargaining in its Freedom to Teach and Learn ranking. They also included a category focusing on the percentage of underqualified (uncertified or teaching outside their area of certification) teachers in each state, recognizing that students are ill-served when educators lack the training they need to effectively perform their challenging jobs.

NPE found that Oregon and Illinois have the most comprehensive protections for students and educators, with Michigan and Pennsylvania also ranking highly. Florida and North Carolina were at the bottom of this ranking, with Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas close behind. Specifically regarding measures directly impacting students’ physical and emotional safety (corporal punishment bans and nondiscrimination laws), Missouri and South Dakota earned the fewest points, actively prohibiting school districts from enumerating nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ students.

A War on Kids

It feels like there’s a war on kids these days, from the US-funded genocide in Gaza, to the deadly rollback of child labor laws, to the strategic dismantling of our primary safety net for young people: democratically governed neighborhood public schools. But if you don’t live in a place that resembles Florida, Arizona, or Oklahoma, it might feel reasonable to assume that the children around you are insulated from the grim realities outlined above. In fact, Democratic-controlled states are by no means immune from problems like abysmal teacher pay or rampant charter school malfeasance. And the chilling effects of the culture wars can be felt in classrooms even in states that have not passed education gag orders.

No matter where you live, it’s worth referring to Public Schooling in America to learn more about how your elected lawmakers are protecting (or failing to protect) children, educators, and neighborhood schools. Blows to schools and communities inflicted at the state level can have catastrophic long-term consequences. And frequently, by the time we start paying close attention, those consequences have already set in.

But it’s definitely not time to give up on high-quality public schools that invest in and protect all young people. In addition to identifying the close association between various attacks on public education, this report takes care to show that some states (including states controlled by Republicans) are actively taking steps to increase protections for schools and students. Examples include: Illinois lawmakers killing off Illinois’ voucher program, California’s significant charter law reforms, and court rulings that struck down Kentucky’s voucher and charter laws. And as Jacobin has reported, although universal school choice is advancing with the push for Christian nationalism, rural Republicans in numerous red states have crossed the aisle to block private school vouchers, which would devastate rural schools.

The overwhelming majority of American families still support their neighborhood public schools. By educating ourselves and our communities about the threats to public education, we can work to ensure that states prioritize this essential public good.