Parents are hungry for change. For some, pandemic-related distance learning programs have revealed what their children are learning—or not learning—in the classroom, and many parents are desperate for an alternative. A survey from education nonprofit EdChoice revealed that more than two-thirds of adult Idahoans feel that education is headed down the wrong track in their local school district.
Fortunately for parents, an education choice option known as an Education Savings Account, or ESA, offers students a customized education that best serves their unique needs and goals.
ESAs have been gaining momentum over the past decade. Idaho does not offer ESAs, but state lawmakers could change that by creating an education scholarship program that universally enables every student to succeed in academics.
As I explained in a recent article, ESAs are state-authorized savings accounts that parents can use to finance their child’s education expenses. Parents usually receive a debit card loaded with a designated percentage of state per-pupil spending. They must use the money for educational purposes but can put the money toward a variety of products and services, including tutoring costs, private school tuition, learning materials or curriculums, and subscriptions to online learning platforms. In many states, unused funds roll over at the end of the year, enabling parents to save money for their child’s future educational expenses.
ESAs are significant because they return the focus of education to students. Schools exist to educate students, so education dollars should follow their intended beneficiaries. Support for student-based funding is growing, as many have begun to realize that we should be funding students, not systems.
ESAs are different from school vouchers. Although school vouchers give families the agency to choose the best education for their children, ESAs are more effective and flexible. School vouchers allow parents to send their children to a private school of their choice, but ESAs allow parents to completely personalize their kids’ education to fit each student’s unique needs. With an ESA, parents could pay for private school tuition and supplement their student’s learning with online instructional materials, tutoring sessions, supplemental materials, and other educational services.
Arizona established America’s first ESA program in 2011. Since then, seven other states—Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia—have followed Arizona’s lead.
Of the eight existing ESA programs, West Virginia’s model is the most expansive. This program, enacted in 2021, “allows eligible parents to receive the average per-pupil state funding already set aside for their children’s education onto an electronic, parent-controlled fund for educational expenses.” Parents can use this money to pay for individual classes or activities at a public school, tutoring costs, Advanced Placement exam fees, college prep courses, online learning programs, educational therapies, and more.
93% of students in West Virginia are eligible to participate in the program, and parents receive 100% of the funds that would be allocated to their student by the state if their child attended his or her assigned district school. Students are eligible to receive funds if they have been enrolled in a public school for at least 45 days prior to applying. All families, regardless of income, can apply.
As EdChoice aptly notes, “[West Virginia’s] ESA empowers families with the freedom and flexibility to customize their child’s education.”
Idaho families seek the same empowerment. In fact, nearly three-quarters of those who are parents of Idaho schoolchildren have reported that they favor ESAs.
A universal ESA, one that is available to every student regardless of financial need, disability, or other criterion, empowers families by enabling them to customize their children’s education. Parents are not limited to selecting one school or program for their child but can use the money to purchase multiple services, providers, or programs. This flexibility enables parents to choose the mix of products and services that works best for each child.
Research shows that many parents use ESAs to customize their child’s education. In Arizona, for example, nearly 30% of parents use ESAs to purchase more than one educational service or product for their child. North Carolina’s results are even more conclusive. Data shows that 64% of ESA holders use the funds to pay for multiple products or services.
It’s no surprise that one-size-fits-all clothing doesn’t work for everyone. One-size-fits-all education doesn’t work either.
Idaho legislators could model future bills after West Virginia’s expansive, universal education choice program. All students, regardless of their economic background, deserve the chance to use funding to choose the education that best fits their individual needs.
Note: EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker survey results are current as of November 2, 2021.