Editor’s note: This commentary from Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, appeared Wednesday on The 74.

As has been reported and celebrated widely, the legislative sessions that just ended in many states brought great progress on the school choice front.

According to the American Federation for Children, five states created new private-school choice programs this year, while eight jurisdictions expanded existing programs, and another two did both. Standouts include major new education savings account (ESA) programs in West Virginia and New Hampshire; major expansions and improvements to Florida’s ESA and tax credit scholarship programs; the enactment of Iowa’s first real charter school bill; and huge wins in Ohio on the voucher, ESA and charter fronts, including direct, formula-driven funding for choice programs.

But why? Especially given all the anti-choice talk in national politics and some congressional pushback, what was it about 2021 that explains such an impressive string of victories at the state level, where it matters most? It’s important to understand so choice supporters can work to replicate it again in the future.

I see three main hypotheses to explore.

First is what we might call the “conventional wisdom” hypothesis: It was the pandemic, stupid. As Education Week reported recently, defenders of traditional public schools were on their heels this year, given parent and taxpayer anger over lengthy school closures related to COVID-19. Why not offer parents the option of escape, especially when the schools they are escaping from weren’t even open for business? Especially given the counterexample of private schools, which remained available for in-person learning almost everywhere, even in the face of pandemic restrictions.

It surely might have been a factor, but the problem with this argument is that school closures were most pronounced in states and communities that lean heavily Democratic.

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