Back to School: Education Savings Accounts

Back to School: Education Savings Accounts

Back-to-school pictures, complete with colorful signs and smiles, fill our Facebook feeds in late August and early September.  Even if you are not going back to school or filling the lunch box of someone who is, this time of year can evoke the hopefulness of new beginnings.  But not all children are going back to schools that are safe or that are meeting their needs, academically or socially.

Consider the faces you’re not seeing on Facebook – the ones that are sad or stressed or simply checked-out.  Consider for a moment why a child might not want to go back to school.  Could it be that he is being bullied and is embarrassed to talk about it?  Could it be that she isn’t challenged in her classes and is bored?  Could it be that he doesn’t feel like he is ever good enough, no matter how hard he tries?

We know that parents with means can and do move quickly to find alternatives.  Companies like Wyzant.com or Kumon offer tutoring services to help students catch up or get ahead academically.  Students who are enduring social difficulties (and whose family can afford to sacrifice the income of one parent) can take courses at home from a quickly expanding number of accredited online schools.   Families who exercise these options are paying twice for their child’s education.

Parents who are without as many financial resources also exercise their freedom to take advantage of better educational opportunities whenever and wherever they can.  In 2017-2018, 5.4 million students from kindergarten to high school returned to public schools, including about 296,000, or about 5.5%, who attended public charter schools.  58.7% of all public school students are economically disadvantaged, whereas 67.5% of students enrolled in public charter schools are identified as economically disadvantaged.

Families with financial needs are not only aware of the options that they have, they are exercising their choices by enrolling their children in public charter schools.  In fact, due to an onerous approval process, the Texas charter sector is not keeping up with the demand for their seats.  There are over 141,000 Texas children on charter waitlists.  Charter schools cannot and should not be the only way to opt-out of the local public school for families without wealth in terms of income or property.

Whether a local school district is meeting the needs of their child or not, families are forced to pay “tuition” to that public school in the form of both state and property taxes.  Regardless of a family’s income, the current system operates under the assumption that a local public school is the best option for their child.  This “one size fits all” assumption is shockingly out-of-step with almost every other area of life in 2018.

States such as Arizona and Florida have already acted to give families the power to allocate their tax dollars toward educational expenses that best meet their child’s needs.  These programs, sometimes known as Education Savings (or Scholarship) Accounts, work a little like a Health Savings Account.  Families can spend the funds on tutoring, special education services or therapies, tuition, or any other authorized educational expense.  Making the whole process modern and convenient are non-profit organizations like Step Up for Students, which provides a streamlined, one-stop-shop for finding and purchasing educational products and services.

When the 86th Texas Legislative Session convenes on January 8, 2019, lawmakers can make history by becoming the largest state to give all families greater educational opportunities by passing an ESA bill.  Despite obstacles such as travel distance or financial constraints, families are already exercising their freedom to find the best opportunities for their children – and they are doing so in increasingly sophisticated and customized ways.  Access to an ESA will give them an even broader range of high quality options to meet the needs that – sometimes – only a family can see.

Erin Valdez, Lone Star Policy Institute Advisory Board Member

Photo credit: Wang Tom