By Robert Luebke
Senior Policy Analyst
Consider these real-life scenarios: An Arizona family is told their 6-year-old son, Ryan, has symptoms on the autism spectrum. Doctors say he will need 20-40 hours per week of individual therapies. Ryan’s parents can’t afford that. What can they do?
In Nevada, Katie, a sixth-grader, is struggling to fit in at her local school. Her parents believe Katie would thrive in a different environment, but they can’t afford tuition at a private school. What can they do?
Fortunately, both of these stories had happy endings, because these families live in states that offer education savings accounts– ESAs for short. ESAs are personal accounts managed by parents to pay for private school tuition, tutoring services, books and other educational expenses.
Accounts are funded by transferring a percentage of taxpayer money allocated for each pupil by the state into the student’s individual account. Ryan’s family turned to an ESA to fund educational therapy for him, and Katie’s family used one to pay tuition at a private school that is more suited to her needs.
Currently five states have ESA programs.
So why are ESAs the latest “hot” thing in education? They work. They meet the needs of families and students while spurring innovation, value and efficiency in the schools.
As with any instrument that disrupts the status quo, opposition has developed.
Some argue that ESAs take money from public schools. But doesn’t the state legislature have the right to encourage education through a variety of vehicles? The state already provides vouchers for thousands of pre-school kids to receive childcare services in private facilities. The state and federal governments provide financial assistance for students to attend college at the school of their choice, public or private. So why not K-12 too?
Do ESAs drain funding from the public schools? The converse may be true. The funding for ESAs is less than the normal funding per pupil. Thus the use of ESAs can reduce crowding and often actually increase per student support. Since many private schools have a lower cost, ESAs may actually save taxpayers money.
Second, critics claim ESA programs lack accountability. But where is the accountability when 28 percent of traditional public and charter schools received D and F scores on North Carolina’s most recent report card?
Let’s also remember that, since parents pay tuition, private schools are more sensitive to parental concerns. That constitutes a built-in accountability mechanism.
ESAs are an idea whose time has come. They offer parents the opportunity to take control of their child’s education, and they offer children the opportunity to access quality educational options that are right for them. Let’s hope North Carolina becomes the sixth state to offer this school choice option.