By: Kaitlyn Shepherd and Anna K. Miller
The Idaho Senate will soon vote on SB 1038, the Freedom in Education (FIE) Savings Account Act, which would establish education savings accounts (ESAs) that would be available to every K-12 student in Idaho and provide $5,950 per year for families to use to completely customize their child’s education.
The bill was sent to the floor with a “do pass” recommendation by the Senate Education Committee with a 6-3 vote. Opponents of school choice continue to make false claims about the program, including that the bill lacks accountability, would negatively affect students with special needs, and would carry an “exorbitant” cost to the state.
In fact, the opposite is true. Education choice will benefit every student in Idaho by providing them with education funds to meet their unique needs, save taxpayer dollars, and change the incentives of public schools to respond to the needs of students, thus creating real accountability.
Claim 1: The FIE Savings Account program lacks sufficient accountability measures to ensure taxpayers see positive academic results.
Currently, public schools are not being held accountable for failing to achieve results. They receive more money every year, yet students’ test scores remain stagnant or decline. Additionally, public schools promote corrupt ideologies that put them more and more out of touch with families’ religious and moral values.
True accountability begins with parents, not the government. Parents love their children more than anyone else and desire to see them thrive. Under the FIE Savings Account program, parents would be empowered to choose from a wide variety of learning environments for their children. If an educational service provider isn’t providing a good education or turns out to be a poor fit for their child, they could enroll their child elsewhere.
Public schools are not accountable to parents because they receive funding regardless of whether schools are meeting every student’s needs. Private schools that don’t meet students’ needs shut down, while public schools get more money.
Public officials regularly claim private schools are unaccountable. For example, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield recently told the Senate Education Committee, “I am not prepared to be an advocate for public funds going to private schools. That does not take away from a parent’s ability to choose to send their child to a private school.”
While accountability begins with parents, the FIE Savings Account program has several provisions to ensure that the program remains accountable to taxpayers.
First, parents would only be able to use funds in the account for approved expenditures, which are clearly enumerated and include things like tuition at a private school or online learning program, required textbooks, tutoring services, and technological devices used primarily for educational purposes.
Second, the State Department of Education (SDE) or its contracted provider would be required to conduct random, quarterly, and annual audits of accounts to ensure that any misuse of funds or fraud is stopped and resolved.
Third, the SDE would be able to remove qualified students or their parents who fail to use the money for approved expenses, knowingly misuse funds, or intend to commit fraud.
Fourth, the attorney general could investigate cases of fraud and “substantial misuse of moneys.”
Finally, money in the account would go directly from the account to approved educational service providers through the digital platform. This means that money would never be handled directly by students or parents.
These measures would work to ensure that funds are used appropriately for approved expenditures.
Claim 2: The FIE Savings Account program would hurt students with special needs because private schools can reject students they don’t want to educate.
The FIE Savings Accounts would actually benefit every student, which is why thousands of special needs students participate in school choice programs every year.
Opponents’ argument fails for two reasons. First, private schools can’t just reject students with special needs. As Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, explains, “Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, private schools must be willing to provide ‘auxiliary aids and services’ to students with disabilities who are otherwise qualified for admission, so long as these accommodations would not change the fundamental nature of the program or result in significant difficulty or expense. Additional requirements under the ADA follow if the school receives public funds (such as through a state voucher program). In that case, schools cannot exclude a voucher participant based on disability if, ‘with minor adjustments,’ such a student could reasonably participate in the private school’s education program.”
Second, students with special needs would be able to use their FIE Savings Accounts to access the learning environment that best serves their needs. As EdChoice notes, “[S]chool choice policies for special needs populations allow parents to find a school that matches their children’s individual needs. That is why more than 58,000 students participate in school choice programs exclusively serving students with disabilities in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.”
Will Schroeder’s mother, for instance, used Arizona’s ESA program to find the school that worked best for Will, who had been punished at the charter school he attended for making noise in class because of Tourette Syndrome and high-functioning autism. They attempted to home school, but Will struggled with depression due to isolation. Ms. Schroeder was able to use Will’s account to send him to Gateway Academy, where he is now thriving.
Titus Johnson struggled in preschool because of multiple disabilities, including hearing difficulties, a cleft palate, and radial dysplasia — or a clubbed arm. His parents were able to use Arizona’s ESA program to hire an occupational therapist to help Titus with his studies.
Claim 3: Financing the FIE Savings Account program would bankrupt the state.
In Idaho, the long-term cost of the FIE Savings Account program would be small compared to the annual state-appropriated cost of $3.5 billion for our existing public school system.
In other states that have passed school choice programs, the percentage of eligible students who choose to participate in the program (the “take-up rate”) during its first year has generally been 1% or less. Only two programs have seen a higher take-up rate: Maryland’s BOOST program, which saw 1.25% of eligible students participate in the first year, and Wisconsin’s Racine Parental Choice program, which had an initial take-up rate of 2.95%.
Based on the experiences of other states, Idahoans can expect that no more than 3,300 students, 1% of eligible students, would participate in the FIE Savings Account program during its first year. However, assuming that 6,600 students, or 2% of those eligible, enrolled in the FIE Savings Account program during the program’s first year, the accounts would cost only around $40 million.
The total estimated cost of $45 million, which includes $5 million for account administration and platform implementation, is a drop in the bucket compared to the $3.5 billion that is spent on the K-12 public education system. To argue that taxpayers can afford to spend $3.5 billion on public schools yet can’t afford to fund a school choice program is intellectually bankrupt.
The program would be subject to legislative appropriations. If the program were to become extremely popular and participation significantly increased after the first year, the state treasurer could ask the Legislature to increase the appropriation. But if tens of thousands of students sought to apply, it begs the question: Why are students so desperate to leave the public education system?
Additionally, if a higher number of existing private or homeschool students decided to participate in the program, why should the state deny them funding when those same students would immediately be fully funded in an existing public school? Public schools currently force taxpayers to pay for the schooling of the wealthy. Public school students in wealthier zip codes are not subject to an income test to determine whether or not they deserve educational support, so why should they be subject to such discrimination in a school choice program? Policymakers should not discriminate against students based on economic factors.
Finally, the FIE Saving Account program would also cause education funding to be spent more efficiently. The cost of educating a student in the public education system is around $11,298, according to reports from the State Department of Education. Each FIE Savings Account student would receive approximately $6,000. This means that FIE Savings Accounts could serve nearly two students for the cost of educating only one student in a district school.
Contrary to opponents’ claims, the FIE Savings Account program would be held accountable to parents and taxpayers, benefit students with disabilities and special needs, and leave the state on sound financial footing. It could be confidently implemented for the benefit of every Idaho student.
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