Research & Commentary: ESA Proposal Would Benefit Wisconsin’s Low-Income Gifted Students

Published December 21, 2017

A bill proposed in the Wisconsin Legislature would provide education savings accounts (ESAs) for low-income “gifted and talented” students in the Badger State. Beginning with the 2018–19 school year, up to 2,000 students would be provided with an ESA of $1,000.

With an ESA, state education funds allocated for a child are placed in a parent-controlled savings account. Parents then use a state-provided debit card to access the funds to pay for the resources chosen for their child’s unique educational program. Under the bill proposal, the ESA could be used to help cover tuition at a private or parochial school, tutoring, online classes, textbooks, the fees for Advanced Placement exams, private music and art lessons, and other expenses approved by the state’s Department of Instruction.

Students enrolled in any school – public, private, or charter – who score in the top 5 percent statewide on standardized tests or are identified by an education official as demonstrating “evidence of high-performance capability in intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership or specific academic areas and needs services or activities not ordinarily provided in a regular school program” will be eligible for the program if they already qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. Currently, a family of four with an annual household income below $45,510 qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.

“Who knows how many scientists, engineers, musicians, artists, and community leaders we are missing out on because their family can’t afford additional educational opportunities,” said bill sponsor Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). “This is another way to make sure our best and our brightest get the opportunity they need to succeed.”

According to the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WiLL), there are likely many students missing out on these opportunities. WiLL reports 63 percent of Wisconsin school districts do not employ any teachers assigned to teach gifted children. In rural school districts, the number swells to 78 percent.

In the 36 percent of Wisconsin public school districts that do employ staff dedicated to gifted and talented students, WiLL reports many of these are “duplicate staff serving multiple schools.” Further, in 13 percent of districts, there were no AP exams taken by a single student, and 48 percent of districts saw AP exams taken in just five or fewer subjects. (There are 36 AP exam subject areas.)

WiLL also notes the proposed ESA would have “no impact on the manner or amount of funding a student receives for their regular school day education.” Public and charter school students would continue to be enrolled at their regular per-pupil rate, while participants in one of the state’s four voucher programs would continue to receive their full voucher. The ESA simply acts as a supplemental fund for gifted students.

Polling shows parents want new and/or expanded ESA programs. The results from EdChoice’s annual Schooling in America survey released earlier in December 2017 show 71 percent of respondents across the country – including 76 percent of Millennials, 77 percent of blacks, 81 percent of Hispanics, and 77 percent for those with incomes under $40,000 per year – are in favor of ESA programs.

Enacting this ESA legislation would be well in keeping with Wisconsin’s long history as a pioneer in education choice, dating back to the establishment of the country’s first voucher program – the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, created in 1990 – and will help ensure fewer Wisconsin children will be left behind.

The following documents provide more information about ESAs and school choice.

Left Behind: How Wisconsin Struggles to Educate Gifted & Talented Students – and How ESAs Can Help
This Policy Brief from Will Flanders, research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, argues Wisconsin is struggling to educate gifted and talented students and explains how an ESA program may help the problem.

Education Savings Accounts – a Primer for 21st Century Education Policy
This report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty explores why Wisconsin policymakers should consider an ESA program, the ESA programs already in place in other states, and challenges and criticisms of ESAs.

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.

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.

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.


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.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact John Nothdurft, Heartland’s director of government relations, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.