Research & Commentary: Study Shows Nearly Half of Florida’s ESA Parents Are Using Funds to Customize Their Child’s Education

Published February 14, 2018

A new report from EdChoice has found 42 percent of families participating in Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program, an education savings account (ESA) program, used their ESA funds to customize their child’s education during the 2015–16 school year. The study was authored by Lindsey M. Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy and the Will Skillman Fellow in Education for The Heritage Foundation, and Jason Bedrick, director of policy for EdChoice.

The Gardiner Scholarship Program is Florida’s ESA program for students with special needs. With an ESA, state education funds allocated for a child are placed in a parent-controlled savings account. Parents are then able to use a state-provided, restricted-use debit card to access the funds to pay for the resources chosen for their child’s unique educational program. These ESA funds can be used to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, textbooks and curriculum, online learning programs, tutoring services, and educational therapies. 

Gardiner is the largest ESA program in the country, based on enrollment; there are now roughly 10,500 students receiving a scholarship through the program. Burke and Bedrick’s report, titled Personalizing Education: How Florida Families Use Education Savings Accounts, also reveals that of this group of customizers, the majority are “independents” who forego brick-and-mortar private schools altogether and instead use their ESA funds for a mix of specialized services, curriculum and instructional materials, and private tutoring for their children.

The independent customizers spent 41 percent of their ESA funds on instructional materials, 33 percent on specialized services, 15 percent on tutoring for their children, and 6 percent on curriculum. A further 48 percent of customizers were considered “augmented tuition users,” meaning while they used their ESA funds primarily for tuition, they were found to supplement this with additional services for their children, mostly additional instructional material, specialized services, and tutoring.

These findings are important because they show parents are using the Gardiner ESA as intended, utilizing a variety of options to come up with an educational program that meets the unique educational needs of their children. “As ESAs expand in states across the country, the authors conclude, “the ways in which parents use these innovative accounts suggest more strongly than ever that a one-size-fits-all approach to schooling fits only some.”

The authors recommend state policymakers to tailor ESA programs so that they are as universal as possible and with a consistent state funding formula. Regulations should be limited, with accountability “structured to create a high level of transparency for taxpayer dollars … while vesting accountability for student outcomes primarily with parents.” Families should be allowed “to do as much online as possible,” and parents should be able to choose from the widest possible variety of service providers.” Further, ESAs should be managed by a nonprofit organization that will be able to devote its full attention to the program, unlike a state agency. Lastly, any unused ESA funds remaining from one school year should be allowed to be transferred over to the next school year. Students should eventually be able to use leftover funds for higher education expenses.

“One of the most important takeaways from this study is for state policymakers … to make the allowable uses as broad as possible for families, because we can see from the evidence that families really do value the unique ability of ESAs to be able to purchase multiple education services and products and providers,” Burke said in a podcast interview discussing the report. “We really have no idea how families might use them moving forward. Families are going to come up with creative ways to meet the needs of their children’s unique learning needs, so keeping that as open as possible in terms of what the allowable uses are … is critically important for the success of these options moving forward.”

The following documents provide more information on education savings accounts.

Personalizing Education: How Florida Families Use Education Savings Accounts
This report by Jason Bedrick of EdChoice and Lindsey Burke of The Heritage Foundation examines how parents in Florida used their education savings account funds during the first two school years of the Gardiner Scholarship Program, which is now utilized by more than 10,000 students with special needs. Bedrick and Burke found more than 42 percent of families used their ESA to customize their child’s education in 2015–16, and 55 percent of these customizers did so without using a brick-and-mortar private school.

The Education Debit Card II: What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts
This follow-up EdChoice report by Jonathan Butcher and Lindsey Burke examines additional data from Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Butcher and Burke reveal what ESA families’ expenditures are now and how spending trends have changed since their previous report.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Ten State Solutions to Emerging Issues
This Heartland Institute booklet explores solutions to the top public policy issues facing the states in 2018 and beyond in the areas of budget and taxes, education, energy and environment, health care, and constitutional reform. The solutions identified are proven reform ideas that have garnered significant support among the states and with legislators.

2017 Schooling in America: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent Experiences, School Choice, and the Role of the Federal Government
This annual EdChoice survey, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examined the effect that increased access to private schooling has on international student test scores in 52 countries around the world, finding that a 1 percentage point increase in the private share of total primary schooling enrollment would lead to moderate increases in student math, reading, and science achievement within nations.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

Recalibrating Accountability: Education Savings Accounts as Vehicles of Choice and Innovation
This Special Report from The Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation explores how education savings accounts expand educational opportunities and hold education providers directly accountable to parents. The report also identifies several common types of regulations that can undermine the effectiveness of the program and how they can be avoided.

The School Voucher Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money?
This report by Jeff Spalding of EdChoice provides a program-for-program breakdown of school voucher costs and savings. On the whole, Spalding says these programs have provided a cumulative savings of $1.3 billion since 2007, or roughly $3,400 per pupil.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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