Twenty years after the initial study, Arizona still gives parents the most choices regarding where their children will be educated and how they’ll pay for it.

The Manhattan Institute, a New York-based nonprofit, created its Educational Freedom Index in 2001. Arizona, a state amid a booming charter school expansion, came out on top.

In concert with the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, the index was updated and released Thursday.

“Arizona ranked No. 1 in 2000 based on a liberal and growing charter school sector and the early stirrings of private choice,” said Matthew Ladner, executive editor of RedefineED and coauthor of the new report. “A state with the amount of choice exercised in the Arizona of 2001, however, probably would rank as middling in the 2021 rankings. While Arizona ranked first in 2001 and first in 2021, the amount of choice being exercised by Arizona families today is far greater than it was in 2001.”

The metrics Ladner, a Phoenix resident, and others used consisted of availability of private school options in proportion to public schools and state aid for students to attend them, number of charter schools and laws governing them, homeschooling enrollment and open enrollment policies for public schools.

Except for homeschooling prevalence, Arizona was in the top 10 for each category. Hawaii, West Virginia and Alaska placed the lowest.

“Arizona is proud to lead the nation in school choice! Families and students need options – this past year has made that clear,” Gov. Doug Ducey said. “We are committed to expanding opportunities for kids and will continue to ensure they have access to an education that best fits their needs.”

Opponents of expanding many of the rankings valued in this measurement say they sap resources from public school districts, some of the most underfunded in the nation. A July report from the nonpartisan Joint Legislative Budgeting Committee found the state spends $10,680 per public school pupil.

Lawmakers approved legislation in committee Wednesday that would exponentially expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

Opponents defeated a ballot initiative in 2018 to expand ESA access to all public school students in the state. Two years later, Arizona voters approved an increase to the state’s top income tax rate that is diverted to public schools.

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