Virginia Legislature Considering ESA Program for Special-Needs Students

Published April 7, 2017

ESAs grant parents access to all or a portion of the funding allocated to their child’s public school education for use on educational alternatives, such as private school tuition, homeschooling textbooks, tutoring, and learning therapies. Virginia currently has one school choice program, the Education Improvement Scholarships Tax Credits Program, which serves low-income students.

State Del. Dave LaRock (R-Hamilton) introduced House Bill 1605 in January 2017. HB 1605 would create Parental Choice Educational Savings Accounts (PCESAs) for students who attended a Virginia public school for at least two semesters immediately prior to establishing an ESA.

As passed by the House, the bill would grant to families with incomes above 300 percent of the federal poverty level access to 90 percent of the state “Standard of Quality” (SOQ) funding. Parents of special-needs students or families with incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty level would receive 100 percent of state SOQ funding.

The House approved HB 1605 on February 7 in a 49–47 vote.

The Senate amended HB 1605 to make ESAs available only to a student “whose family income is less than or equal to 300 percent of the poverty guidelines, who receives special education pursuant to an Individualized Education Program,” and who attended a public school for at least two semesters immediately prior to establishing an ESA. The Senate passed HB 1605 on February 21 with a 21–19 vote.

If the House approves the Senate’s amendments, HB 1605 will go to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) for final approval. McAuliffe vetoed a similar bill to establish ESAs for special-needs students in April 2016.

‘Virginia Is Facing a Crisis’

LaRock says HB 1605 would help to alleviate Virginia’s special-needs-education “crisis.”

“Right now, Virginia is facing a crisis of rising special-education demands, as the number of students most expensive to serve, [those with] autism and other health impairments, has skyrocketed by 23 percent to 46,865 students in just the last five years,” LaRock said. “In the next 30 years, Virginia is poised to expect an additional 300,000 students. PCESAs would help alleviate the inevitable overcrowding [and] help take the pressure off of Virginia’s schools.”

LaRock says school choice is valuable to Virginia’s economy as well as its educational system.

“I believe school choice is essential to unlocking the full potential of Virginia’s education system, requiring a diversified approach to achieve success in education and economic development, and to improve Virginia’s competitiveness and quality of life,” LaRock said.

Benefitting Public Schools

Education choice also benefits public schools, LaRock says.

“Twenty-three empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools,” LaRock said. “Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools. While Florida’s A+ Opportunity Scholarship Program was in place, giving school choice to kids in low-performing schools, the low-performing schools facing competition from vouchers improved dramatically.”

Saving Taxpayer Money

A Goldwater Institute analysis estimated for every 5,000 children using Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the state saves $12.3 million. Virginia’s PCESAs were crafted using a design similar to the Arizona program.

Lindsey Burke, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, says ESAs promote competition and drive down prices.

“Even if you’re in an area where there’s a good private school market, [when] you expand education choice options, you catalyze the supply of new providers,” Burke said. “As soon as parents are walking around with that purchasing power, the market diversity increases.”

ESAs ‘Really the Way Forward’

Burke says many states are now considering ESA programs.  

“Virginia has a fairly barren school choice landscape, so the more options that can be added in the Commonwealth, the better,” Burke said. “If Virginia is moving on an ESA option, they are in good company. Most states looking to move on in school choice legislation this session are looking at an ESA option.

“ESAs, in my opinion, are really the way forward in education choice … It’s something that’s really attractive, especially in Virginia, a state that has so much geographic diversity,” Burke said. “In rural areas, without many private schools, parents would have the ability to harness the power of an ESA for tutors or online options. In Northern Virginia or Virginia Beach, they should be able to access private schools.”

School Choice Opponents

Attempting to block the bill this session are “those who see education in terms of dollars and cents, instead of improving education for schoolchildren,” LaRock said. “Teachers unions, superintendent associations, the NAACP at the national level, and the politicians they support financially have all sold the kids out.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.