Parents deserve more power in choosing schools

Nov. 29, 2012 @ 06:55 PM

Public opinion polls clearly show that North Carolina parents want expanded educational opportunities for their children. Combine that with the growing influence of school choice advocates in the General Assembly and the election of a new governor supportive of school reform efforts, and you boost the chances that North Carolina will pass significant school choice legislation next spring. But how can such programs be funded?

Financing instruments include vouchers, individual and corporate tax credits, and tax credit scholarships. The best option for North Carolina, however, might be to offer families education savings accounts.A good way to understand them is to see how they differ from vouchers. Whereas vouchers are state payments usually designated for a specific purpose, ESAs are not vouchers because parents can use them for a variety of educational options. Parents are in control of how the money is spent.

Education savings accounts are state-funded bank accounts established to provide an education for qualified students. Arizona passed the first ESA law in 2011. That state’s ESA, formally called the Empowerment Scholarship Account, is available to help special-needs students, students in failing schools, children in foster homes and children of active military personnel. Under the law, families can remove a child from an Arizona public school and use ESA funds to educate him or her in a private or online school, or in a homeschool setting. Scholarship accounts administered by the state will receive approximately 90 percent of the state per pupil funding. Accounts vary in size from $1,500 to $27,500, depending on the severity of the child’s disability. The Arizona Department of Education and the State Treasurer’s Office coordinate how the funds are deposited and also ensure compliance.

While the state oversees the deposit of state funds, parents have discretion over how the funds are spent. Money from ESA accounts can be spent on tuition, books, tutoring or other educational expenses. Moreover, money that isn’t spent in high school can be used for college expenses. Some of the advantages of ESAs include:

Parent power. ESAs shift the power from schools to parents. With ESAs, parents – not the schools — determine where a child will attend school. Parents also control educational funds. They have the power to spend money on a range of educational options, including tuition, tutoring, and books or even saving for college.

Savings. ESAs can save money for the state school system. The Arizona legislation states that only students who have been in the public schools the prior year are eligible for ESAs. That means students already in the private schools cannot benefit from the legislation. In addition, since the legislation provides ESA recipients with 90 percent of the state per pupil funding, the state will be spending less than it normally would be spending on education. The other 10 percent of state funding can be considered savings or be used for administrative expenses.

Competition. ESAs infuse competition into the public school system. Since dollars are attached to the child –not the school — ESAs provide incentives to the public schools to be more student- and parent-focused.

North Carolina parents want to decide where their children will attend school. Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts offer one model for lawmakers who wish to expand school choice in North Carolina. ESAs offer the opportunity to return control of education to parents and also unleash competitive forces into a system in need of reform. ESAs offer parents control over the education of their children by giving them the authority to direct educational spending.

States can target ESAs on specific populations or create broad categories of eligibility. Either way ESAs are effective ways to expand parental choice and access to quality educational opportunities and infuse competition and reform into the public schools.

Bob Luebke is a senior policy analyst for the Civitas Institute in Raleigh.