Lawmakers in Pennsylvania are likely to introduce education savings account (ESA) legislation during the 2017 session now that the state has larger Republican majorities in both the state’s House and Senate.
ESAs grant parents access to a portion or all the money allocated for their child’s public school education to spend on learning alternatives such as private school tuition, textbooks, or tutoring. Pennsylvania currently has two tax-credit scholarship programs that offer corporations tax credits for donations they make to organizations that provide private school scholarships.
“Under Republican leadership, the House Education Committee held a hearing on ESAs in September ,” Watchdog.org reported in December 2016. “Republicans will hold larger majorities in both the state House and Senate [in 2017], going from 119 to 122 in the 203-member House and from 31 to 34 in the 50-member Senate.”
Focusing on Special-Needs Students
James Paul, a senior policy analyst focusing on education policy at the Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania, says initial ESA legislation in the state will likely be limited to special-needs students.
“Education savings accounts are the best way for parents to customize their child’s learning experience,” Paul said. “Essentially, parents are given a set amount and can pay for private school tuition, curriculum, online expenses, educational therapy, and behavioral therapy for students with special needs. The bill will likely be introduced as an ESA for students with Individual Education Plans [developed for children with special needs]. It has the potential to transform the entire educational system.”
Parents ‘Control and Customize’
Paul says ESAs make schools accountable to parents.
“ESAs allow parents to completely control and customize the educational experience of their kids,” Paul said. “ESAs are a model for where government is still involved in education yet no longer the sole service provider.
“Generally, the best accountability rests with parents who are invested in their child’s education,” Paul said. “If their child isn’t satisfied, they are free to seek an alternative. As for service providers, there are going to be accountability measures related to teacher certification and testing requirements. Those details are still going to be worked out in the legislation. However, I would prefer to see less restrictions and less oversight to begin with and iron out kinks as they arise.”
‘Step Up and Innovate’
Michael Chartier, director of state engagement at EdChoice, says ESAs can improve the education system throughout the nation.
“[ESAs] can seamlessly integrate in any state’s educational framework,” Chartier said. “Parents and kids are accustomed to and excited about customization in virtually every aspect of their lives: cellphones, cars, wardrobe, etc. ESAs allow parents to have the same flexibility in education. They can customize around a child’s learning needs and allow education providers to step up and innovate.”
‘So Many Benefits to ESAs’
Chartier, who has worked with numerous states on ESA legislation, says Pennsylvania should learn from other states and listen to parents.
“I’m not going to tell the people of Pennsylvania what to do, but I think that there are so many benefits to ESAs that parents will enjoy,” Chartier said. “A more inclusive ESA program would create larger groups of people who could support the program. [Pennsylvania lawmakers should] remember to look at this from the parents’ point of view.
“It’s important to ensure that whatever legislation they enact is easy for the parents to utilize and therefore for students to benefit from,” Chartier said. “Consider the trade-offs of accountability and user-friendliness. Learn from what other states have done. Where have they succeeded? What would they do differently?”
Alexandra Hudson ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.