Delaware Rejects Bill Giving Parents of Special Needs Students School Choice

Published June 24, 2016

The Delaware House Education Committee rejected a bill that would have established education savings accounts (ESAs) for parents of special needs students.

House Bill 161, called the Parent Empowerment Education Savings Account Act, says it “allows parents to use the funds that would have been allocated to their child at their resident school district for an education program of the parents’ choosing.”

The Education Committee rejected HB 161 in May 2016, and it went back to the House for revision in June. State Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Bellefonte) said she sees the bill as “sort of a voucher system to subsidize private schools because their enrollment is down.” Lobbyists representing teachers, school administrators, and school boards say the ESAs will destroy public schools by decreasing funding.

ESAs Are Not Vouchers

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, says there are important distinctions between ESAs and vouchers.

“An education savings account is when the state takes a portion of the child’s funds from the traditional formula and puts it in a private bank account that parents can use to buy educational products and services for their children,” Butcher said.  “A voucher or a scholarship is a coupon. It is a piece of paper that allows a family to take their child to a private school. It has one purpose. An education savings account makes families contractors for their child’s education. They are contractors for the state and they can purchase multiple products and services.”

Butcher says research shows families are using their ESAs for multiple purposes.

“We have evidence to confirm that ESAs are categorically different from vouchers,” Butcher said.

‘One Size Doesn’t Fit All’

Ron Russo, senior education fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute, one of the organizations involved with the Delaware ESA bill, says the purpose of HB 161 is not to destroy public schools.

“The ESA bill here in Delaware was really geared to the ‘square peg in a round hole situation,'” Russo said. “This was not a large-scale effort to shift students from any one system into another system. Not at all. We are not trying to incriminate the public school system. What we are trying to do is we are trying to say ‘one size doesn’t fit all.'”

Russo says the Delaware bill is modeled after Arizona’s ESA bill, and the focus of the Delaware bill was narrowed down to focus on special needs students.

Avoiding the ‘Voucher’ Label

Russo says the authors of the bill purposefully narrowed its focus to avoid the label of “voucher” being applied to it, though that is exactly what happened.

“As soon as I said ‘ESAs,’ the first words to come out of the opposition’s mouth was ‘voucher,'” Russo said. “They weren’t even thinking. As soon as they saw money being handled outside of the public school system, they said ‘voucher.’

“As a matter of fact, you’re talking to the guy who narrowed the focus of the original bill because I said to folks, ‘You are targeting too many people or too many kids and this is going to be seen as a voucher, so let’s limit this as much as possible,” Russo said. “But, however, that didn’t work.”

Future Passage

Butcher says he hopes families continue to tell their stories to legislators.

“When you light up their phones, when you visit them in the offices and you say, ‘Look, this is my child and he needs help now and I am not going to wait,’ I think that message made by enough families, I think that is the message that gets through,” Butcher said.

Andrea Dillon ([email protected]) writes from Holly Springs, North Carolina.