Education Savings Accounts: Re-thinking Delivery of Public Education
By Brittany Corona
In many ways, Max is an average, albeit successful, student at Loyola Marymont University in California, but Max’s journey to college wasn’t typical. While in high school he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, swam the Alcatraz, and threw the first pitch of the season for the 2011 Arizona Diamond Backs. And Max was born legally blind.
Max’s parents Marc and Lisa knew their son was exceptionally bright and ambitious. They wanted to give him the best education possible, but couldn’t afford private school tuition. Fortunately, in 2011 Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the nation’s first Education Savings Account program into law, which allowed Marc and Lisa to send Max to Brophy College Preparatory, buy a talking computer, braille textbooks, and save over $6,000 for Max’s college tuition at Loyola Marymont. The Education Savings Account program opened new doors of opportunity for Max, and thousands of other students across the nation.
With Education Savings Accounts (ESA) states are re-thinking public-funded education. Often described as an “education debit card,” ESAs allow parents to access a portion of the state funds pre-allocated for their child’s schooling in a restricted- government authorized account. Parents can then use these funds like a debit card to purchase government approved education tools and services. ESAs therefore empower parents to create a customized educational experience for their child. This ability to separate the financing of education from its delivery has the potential to change the entire public-funded schooling landscape by creating new channels of competition and innovation for education providers.
Among approved education providers for ESAs include: private school tuition, textbooks, curricula, online learning, AP courses, individual public school courses, education therapies, and a host of other options for parents to tailor their child’s education around their individual learning needs. Like Marc and Lisa did for their son Max, ESA parents can even rollover unused funds from year to year and into a college savings account upon the child’s high school graduation.
As of March 2017 five states have passed ESA programs: Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Nevada. Although each state allows families flexibility to direct public education dollars to better learning options, each state’s policy differs regarding its eligibility, administration, accountability and transparency. For example, when Arizona’s program was first adopted in 2011, only children with special needs were eligible for the accounts. Now in its sixth year, the program has been expanded five times to include children from “failing” schools, active duty and fallen military, children in adoptive care, incoming kindergarteners, and children from tribal lands. Whereas Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi have restricted use to the accounts to children with special needs, in 2015 Nevada passed an ESA that would allow all of their students (who have been in public school at least 100 days) to access an ESA for their education needs.
Education Savings Accounts are the new way states are considering allocating their public education dollars, making schooling student-centric and thinking outside of the constraints of the traditional brick and mortar classroom. Every year more state legislatures are considering adopting an ESA to meet their students’ learning needs and foster new innovation in their public-funded education system.