ESAs Would Help ‘the Land of Opportunity’ Live Up to Its Name

Published March 7, 2017

The education-choice movement is based on a simple proposition: Parents should be given options for their child’s education. No longer should a child’s schooling be determined solely by ZIP code and the whim of circumstance.

The Arkansas Parental Empowerment for Education Choice Act, if passed, would help advance this proposition. It would establish the nation’s first universal education savings accounts (ESA) program to be funded via tax-credit scholarships. These ESAs would then be available for use by parents to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, should parents choose to do so.

Under the proposed program, nonprofit organizations, after receiving approval from the state, would be eligible to grant scholarships to Arkansas students. Individuals and businesses would then donate to these nonprofits and receive a tax credit equal to as much as 100 percent of the amount of their contribution. Donations for $10 million in tax credits would be allowed in 2017, with the potential for a total increase of 10 percent annually. Roughly 1,500 students could be granted scholarships if the program is fully funded in its first year.

Each student awarded an ESA would receive a grant in the amount of 100 percent of Arkansas’s “foundation funding” amount, which was $6,646 for the 2016–17 school year, and will increase to $6,712 for the 2018 fiscal year. The funds could also be used to pay for textbooks and tutoring services or to cover fees associated with a national standardized achievement test, such as the SAT.

Students with disabilities could also use the ESA funds for educational therapies, other educational services or for transportation. However, disabled students would not be able to receive both an ESA and a voucher under the Succeed Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities.

For all students, leftover ESA funds could be rolled over into the following year, and, if rolled over, the funds would be available until the student is 22 years old. This means the ESAs could also be used to pay for college tuition and fees.

While all students would be eligible for the ESA, certain students would be given higher priority, such as children who belong to a family that qualifies for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program ($44,955 for a family of four in 2016–17). Scholarships will be awarded via lottery in the first year of the program, with children who qualified for the ESA program during the previous year given first priority for seats in the second year, followed by their siblings and then students on the waiting list.

This legislation comes at a much-needed time. Arkansas’s traditional public schools are failing. Only 32 percent of Arkansas fourth graders and 25 percent of eighth graders tested “proficient” in math on the 2015 National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Only 32 percent of fourth graders and 27 percent of eighth graders tested proficient in reading. These results show Arkansas’s public school system is failing to educate roughly seven out of 10 fourth and eighth-grade students to a proficient level in reading and mathematics.

Arkansas’s sub-standard performance on NAEP underscores the desperate need for the state to expand school choice opportunities far beyond what is currently available. Too many public schools in the Natural State are failing to adequately prepare students for productive lives. Parents should be allowed to choose the schools their children attend and should not be penalized financially if that choice is a private religious or secular school.

In May 2016, EdChoice released a report examining 100 empirical studies on school choice programs. Eighteen of these studies used random assignment to measure outcomes, referred to in academia as the “gold standard.” This report found the overwhelming majority of the available empirical evidence makes it clear educational choice offers families equal access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires – and does so at a lower cost – while simultaneously benefitting public school students.

“The results are not difficult to explain,” the study says. “School choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools by allowing students to find the schools that best match their needs and by introducing healthy competition that keeps schools mission-focused. It saves money by eliminating administrative bloat and rewarding good stewardship of resources [and it] breaks down the barriers of residential segregation, drawing students together from diverse communities.”

Currently, private school choice in the Natural State is available only to children with special needs, about 13 percent of the state’s K-12 students, but educational choice programs would give all families a greater opportunity to meet their child’s unique education needs. Providing this universal ESA program would instantly bring Arkansas to the forefront of the education-choice movement, and it would be a significant step toward remedying Arkansas’s lackluster record of failing to educate its children.

When parents are given the opportunity to choose, every school must compete and improve, which gives more children the opportunity to attend a quality school. Hence, a universal ESA would bring “the Land of Opportunity” much closer to living up to its name.

[Originally Published at RealClearEducation]