ESAs and Vouchers: Answers for North Carolina Parents
- Vouchers and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) Both Expand Educational Choice, but There are Critical Differences Between the Programs
- ESAs Enable More Educational Options to Parents
- School Choice Programs Make Schools Accountable to Parents, not Gov’t
North Carolina parents are asking for more education options for their children. Currently one of the most popular options is vouchers (Opportunity Scholarships and Special Needs Scholarships). Two states – Arizona and Florida – have pioneered the use of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are parent-controlled accounts intended to pay approved educational expenses. Three other states have approved ESA legislation, while a number of other states – including North Carolina – have introduced ESA legislation.
What follows is a brief FAQ on vouchers and ESAs in North Carolina.
What’s the difference between a voucher and an ESA?
Unlike a voucher, which usually has a specified purpose, such as tuition in a private school, an Education Savings Account gives parents the freedom to choose how they want to spend the funds in their account. Arizona, which passed the nation’s first ESA in 2011, allows parents to use money for tuition, online courses, textbooks, tutoring, and a variety of other approved education products and services.
As a result, ESAs give parents more control over what their children will learn and how they learn it. In addition, because ESAs put parents in charge for how funds are spent, ESAs provide an incentive for parents to economize, a value that is largely absent from any discussion of vouchers. The accounts’ ability to shape a child’s education, direct educational spending, and incentivize spending are reasons why many believe ESAs are the future of school choice.
Doesn’t North Carolina currently provide a Special Needs Scholarship for special needs students?
Special needs students in North Carolina are eligible to receive up to $8,000 per year for tuition, required fees and certain other expenses related to educating a child with a disability. If the school participates in the Disabilities Grant Program, the program will mail tuition directly to the school[i].
While the Disabilities Grant Program is certainly helpful in meeting the educational needs of special needs students, the varied nature of these needs highlights the program’s limitations. For example, parents who would like to purchase special education therapies, related services, educational technology or attend a school that is not in the Disabilities Grant Program will have to provide all costs up front and be reimbursed later. Such an arrangement is helpful for those who have the financial wherewithal to front the costs, but offers no assistance to families that don’t have the resources to pay the costs upfront.
Do ESAs/vouchers take money away from the public schools?
Critics of ESA/voucher programs claim that school choice programs drain resources from the public schools. Let’s remember that if a child leaves the public school system using an ESA or a voucher the school is relieved of its obligation to educate the child. That’s true whether the child enrolls in a private school or a public school.
When revenue follows the student and a student goes elsewhere, schools think they have less money. Several factors are at work to suggest that isn’t always the case. First, many states, including North Carolina, have formulas that work to moderate the impacts of steep increases or decreases in enrollment. The effect is to provide schools with actually more money than warranted under strict enrollment formulas. Secondly, if students leave the system, total monies may be less but per pupil support may actually increase, since there are fewer students. This will vary depending on long-term and short-term marginal costs.
Finally, state and local governments frequently increase per student spending following creation of a school choice program. Per student spending actually increased 58 percent in the Milwaukee Public Schools from 1992 -2011 after implementation of a school choice program. Similarly, per student spending in the Cleveland Public Schools increased 62 percent from 1997 to 2011[ii] after the onset of their school choice program.
Are ESAs/vouchers used to unconstitutionally fund religious schools?
School choice critics call ESAs unconstitutional because they will fund religious schools. However, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002[iii]), the United States Supreme Court upheld a Cleveland, Ohio voucher program that allowed children to use public tax dollars to attend religious schools. The court ruled the program was constitutional because it was neutral between religious and nonreligious alternatives and because the decision to attend a schools was made not by the state but by the parent who could choose from both secular and sectarian options.
That ruling said vouchers for private schools do not violate the US Constitution. But what about state constitutions? Many states adopted Blaine amendments to prohibit the flow of state aid to sectarian schools.
North Carolina, however, has no Blaine amendment. In July 2015, the North Carolina Supreme Court said Opportunity Scholarship vouchers do not violate the North Carolina State Constitution[iv]. The court wrote that the constitution doesn’t prohibit lawmakers from appropriating “general revenue to support other educational initiatives.” Secondly, in response to the plaintiff’s claim that there is no public purpose served allowing scholarship recipients to attend a private school, the court held that the legislation still served a public purpose since “the ultimate beneficiary of providing these children additional educational opportunities is our collective citizenry.”
Don’t vouchers/ESA schools lack accountability standards equal to the public schools?
Such a statement incorrectly assumes that private schools should be the same as public schools and that accountability should look the same. Accountability is important. However, it is also important that the type of accountability fits the school.
Schools that accept vouchers and ESAs are accountable to their students in a variety of ways. Private schools are already required to comply with various health, safety and nondiscriminatory regulations. Academic quality is maintained through membership in accrediting associations as well as having students participate in nationally-recognized standardized tests. Fiscal health is maintained by requiring schools to administer financial audits.
While these steps are helpful, ESAs and vouchers already include the ultimate source of accountability – parents. Since private schools derive the overwhelming majority of their revenue from tuition, these schools have a built-in incentive to be receptive to the concerns of parents, or else risk closing. If parents are dissatisfied with the education their child is receiving, they can remove the child from the school. In the vast majority of public schools, no such option exists.
[i] Disabilities Grant Program – House Select Committee on Education Strategies and Practice, October 18, 2016. Document available at: http://www.ncleg.net/documentsites/committees/house2015-175/October%2018,%202016/Kathryn%20Marker_Disabilities%20Grant%20(legislative%20committee%2010%2018).pdf
[ii] For further information on this subject see: The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts, Ben Scafidi, Ph.D. Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, March 2012. Available online at: http://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/The-Fiscal-Effects-of-School-Choice-Programs.pdf
[iv] Hart v. State of North Carolina and North Carolina Education Assistance Authority. July 2015, North Carolina Supreme Court. Decision available online at: http://law.justia.com/cases/north-carolina/supreme-court/2015/372a14.html