One of the most popular options for expanding educational opportunity is the Education Savings Account (ESA). Currently five states – Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada – have passed ESA legislation, and at least 10 other states have bills in the works.
A recent Civitas Poll shows that the idea of ESAs is also popular in North Carolina – with almost every group and region – especially when the accounts are available to all families.
What are ESAs? They provide parents with a percentage of per pupil state support, usually ranging from 85 to 95 percent. The funds are transferred to a parent-controlled account. Parents can use the money to pay for approved educational expenses, such as tuition, books and tutoring. Administrative costs are covered by designating a percentage of the remaining funds for such expenses. Such costs often range from 3 to 8 percent. Since the cost of educating children in many private schools is often less than their public counterparts, ESAs can produce real savings for states and local districts.
What do North Carolinians think about ESAs? The June Civitas Poll asked 600 registered voters two questions about ESAs. (The poll surveyed 600 registered North Carolina voters, 30 percent of whom were reached on cell phones. The survey was taken June 23-25, and had a margin of error of plus/minus 4 percent.) Respondents’ answers are instructive, as is information gleaned from the crosstabs. Questions include:
Recently Nevada became the fifth state to approve Education Savings Accounts for students, commonly called ESAs. ESAs are government-authorized savings accounts that place government funds in an account for families and allow parents to use the funds for approved expenses such as tuition, books and tutoring. In general, do you favor or oppose the idea of Education Savings Accounts?
Results indicate that respondents favored ESAs by a better than 2 to 1 ratio (58 to 27 percent), with about 15 percent undecided. Support for ESAs is strongest in the eastern part of the state, with support in all parts of that region at 60 percent or above: 66 percent in the Triangle, 62 percent in the Southeast, and 60 percent in the Northeast. Generally support for the idea of ESAs in the Western part of North Carolina is also strong, with support dipping below 50 percent only in one area: 56 percent in the Piedmont, 49 percent in Charlotte and 58 percent in Western NC (58 percent).
With regard to party registration, 63 percent of registered Democrats support ESAs, compared to 56 percent of GOP registrants and 53 percent of unaffiliated voters. When broken down by ideology, the numbers are equally strong with 64 percent of liberals and moderates and 54 percent of conservatives expressing support for ESAs. With regard to race, 69 percent of blacks support ESAs, along with 54 percent of whites and 64 percent of those in the “other” category, which is largely a Hispanic population.
A second poll question delves deeper into support for ESAs and asks respondents who should be eligible for an ESA. More specifically, we asked:
Five States have approved ESA legislation. These states vary in who is eligible for the ESA, ranging from special needs populations to nearly all students. If approved by the North Carolina State legislature, in your opinion, who should be eligible to receive an Education Savings Account?
Respondents overwhelmingly (57 percent) chose “All Students” when asked who should be eligible for an Education Savings Account. We’ll call this option a “universal ESA.” The next most popular selections were “Special Needs or At Risk Students” (15 percent); “Students below the poverty level” (11 percent); “Students Attending Failing Schools” (3 percent) and “Don’t Know” (13 percent). Again support for a universal ESA was strong across all regions, ranging from 67 percent in Western NC to a low of 48 percent, with all percentages – save the Western NC finding – above 50 percent.
Just what type of voter supports universal ESAs? Support crosses party lines. If we divide support by party registration, universal ESAs were supported by 54 percent of GOP registrants, 57 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of unaffiliated voters.
If we look at ideology, the numbers are similarly strong. Fifty-eight percent of self-identified liberals support universal ESAs, along with 64 percent of moderates and 53 percent of conservatives. Regarding race, the data are even more striking, with universal ESAs supported by 63 percent of blacks, 55 percent of whites and 65 percent of “other.”
So what do the numbers mean? These numbers suggest the broad appeal of ESAs and that supporters defy political or ideological labelling. The poll indicates a strong level of support statewide for the concept of an ESA. That support also crosses geographical, ideological, political and racial lines. The favorable results also seem to echo the results of a 2012 Friedman-Civitas poll. That poll found similarly strong support for ESAs in general – in the 56/28 percent favor/oppose range. The same poll also found that 65 percent of respondents thought ESAs should be available to all students.
The 2015 legislative session saw the introduction of North Carolina’s first ESA bill by Rep. Bert Jones (R-Rockingham). The bill was immediately referred to the Education Committee and never received a full vote. Still, the growing popularity of school choice makes it likely that new ESA legislation will be reintroduced. When that happens, let’s hope lawmakers’ decisions reflect the broad support ESAs enjoy among North Carolinians.
This article was written by Bob Luebke, Senior Policy Analyst for the Civitas Institute.
Founded in 2005, the Civitas Institute is a Raleigh, NC-based policy organization committed to creating a North Carolina whose citizens enjoy liberty and prosperity derived from limited government, personal responsibility and civic engagement.
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