The future of school choice might very well revolve around a relatively new idea in giving parents school choice options: the ESA. Here are some frequently asked questions regarding ESAs – what they are, what they do and why they are becoming increasingly popular and important school choice alternatives.
Q. There has been a lot of buzz around ESAs as a viable school choice option. What do the letters ESA stand for?
A. ESA typically stand for either Education Spending Accounts or Education Savings Account (not to be confused with a personal tax-advantage plan like a 529).
Q. What is an ESA?
A. EdChoice says ESAs “allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses.”
Q. Is this a federal program?
A. No, it is up to each state to create their own version of an ESA.
Q. You mean the state gives money directly to parents for educational purposes? Doesn’t that invite fraud or abuse?
A. Not at all. Governments give direct payments to people for many purposes, such as unemployment insurance, welfare payments, SNAP (food stamps), farm subsidies, and recently COVID-relief payments. There is little evidence that parents abuse their ESA dollars. Giving parents money to pay for education is totally appropriate.
Q. What are some of those “multiple uses”?
A. The qualified expenses vary from state-to-state, but again, according to EdChoice, “those uses include: can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials. Some ESAs, but not all, even allow students to use their funds to pay for a combination of public-school courses and private services.”
Q. How many states have ESAs?
A. Eight states: Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Q. Are the programs the same in all those states?
A. No. They all differ. Arizona and the newest state, West Virginia have universal programs in which virtually all families can qualify. Incidentally, those two states just survived legal challenges from the education establishment, which tried to block those ESAs.
Q. Ok, but why ESAs? Why not charter schools or vouchers? Don’t they accomplish the same thing?
A. While all school choice efforts are commendable, ESAs stand out because they truly empower parents to be in control of the way their kids are educated, and it’s hard to argue with that. If you want to give someone power, give them the money.
Q. Why are they different than other choice options?
A. ESAs are different because they allow for lots of different types of educational expenses. Unlike other choice programs that allow students to attend a different school, parents can use their funds to customize their children’s educational services. There are many examples like this one in which a Mississippi family used their ESA dollars to fund a highly individualized education plan for their autistic son, an approach that simply does not exist in the public school system.
Q. If ESAs are so great, why doesn’t Kansas have one?
A. The Kansas Legislature narrowly defeated an ESA bill (on a tie vote in the Senate) during the 2021 session. Proposals were introduced in the 2022 legislative session but didn’t receive substantive action. The education establishment is very powerful in this state and it has been able to pressure the state in keeping out virtually all school choice attempts. However, look for another effort next session with a new Legislature.
Q. Don’t ESAs have the potential to have a substantial impact on the public school system?
A. Let’s hope they do. State assessment scores continue to flounder. Nearly one-third of all students are below grade level in math and reading. And nearly half of all low-income students, those who are in families with the least ability to pay for educational alternatives, are below grade level. If students and families have viable school choice options, the public school system will finally have an incentive to change the way they do business. That would be a benefit to all Kansans.