Empowering Parents with Education Savings Accounts

A parent in Arizona argues, ESAs are serving the educational needs of her children. Jenny Clark, a mother of two children with learning disabilities has been able to provide her kids with the specialized resources they need for a successful future.  She argues that “children are not mere funding units,” and thanks to ESAs, she has “realized that our children finally have hope for their future.”  Jenny is just one of many parents or guardians who are taking advantage of benefits delivered by ESA programs.  Their voices are proof that ESAs provide a better educational opportunity for all children, no matter their limitations.


From a policy perspective, if anything good comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may open the door for new opportunities in education. Parents, children, and educators across Iowa are preparing for another school year, but any back-to-school excitement has been torpedoed by the anxiety of COVID-19. Last spring, parents who were either working from home or out-of-work because of the shutdown, were now the prime educators for their children. COVID-19 has demonstrated parents, regardless of income, should have the ability to provide the best possible education for their child.


Education policy is often reduced to debating how much state funding public schools will receive. Public school funding is an important part of the policy discussion because education consumes much of Iowa’s General Fund budget. Education is not just about dollars but is about quality and opportunity. The quality of an education is imperative to a child’s future. Education is life changing.  It not only prepares children for the workforce but should help shape their character and prepare them to be good citizens.


Almost everyone agrees that education is a priority. If education is a priority, then it should not be controversial that taxpayer dollars follow the student. A child should not be limited by zip codes, socio-economic status, or other roadblocks preventing them with the opportunity for a better education. Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) provide parents the flexibility to not only choose which school their child attends, but also purchase other educational services, thus affecting the overall quality of education which they receive.


ESAs are especially beneficial for lower income parents who are unable to afford to send their children to a private school or provide other educational services. Education tax dollars should be funding students directly, rather than specific schools. This is where ESAs come in as a commonsense solution not only empowering parents and providing quality education, but also creating competition within Iowa’s educational system.


ESAs allow dollars to follow the student to the school of choice. The design and dollar amount of ESAs can vary. ESAs can be universal or tailored to families with lower incomes or families with children who have disabilities. The best ESA would be universal giving all taxpaying parents the right to choose where their dollars go. Many parents may not be satisfied with their child’s public school and may see a better opportunity in a private school.


An ESA would not just allow a parent to send their child to a private school, but they can be used for multiple purposes. They can be used to pay tuition and related fees, online instruction, and private tutoring. ESAs can also be used to help with specialized educational services for children with disabilities. Perhaps a student would benefit from additional courses that are not offered at their school but may be offered at another public or private school, an ESA would help cover those costs. In some cases, parents can also use unused ESA funds to help pay for higher education expenses. The best part of ESAs is the flexibility which can meet the unique educational needs of each child.


A recent trend in education that is getting more attention as a result of COVID-19 is the formation of micro-schools. Micro-schools are small, sometimes with no more than a dozen students. These schools resemble the one-room schoolhouses our grandparents attended. Education Week described some of the common characteristics of micro-schools:


  • Micro schools have no more than 150 students, but are often smaller—from around 10 to a few dozen students;
  • Multiple ages learn together in a single classroom;
  • Teachers act more as guides than lecturers;
  • There's a heavy emphasis on digital and project-based learning; and
  • Education is highly personalized.


Micro-schools may continue to grow in popularity, but this is just another example of how an ESA could be used to pay for this education. Without an ESA for support, it is certain that lower and middle-class parents would not be able to afford a micro-school.


Currently five states (Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee) have an ESA policy. Arizona’s ESA program is considered one of the best policies in the nation. Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account is the most flexible in terms of what parents can use the money for and on average, families get $6,100 per child (non-special needs or non-kindergarten).  Allowing parents to use those dollars for “tutoring, educational therapies, private school tuition, curriculum materials, and other teaching tools.”


Jonathan Butcher, a Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, wrote, the states that have ESAs were better prepared to help parents handle the switch to online education. “The small cadre of parents and children using Education Savings Accounts in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee are one step ahead here, noted Butcher.


The ESA policy in these states allowed parents the flexibility to provide online instruction or other educational services at home. “Because these families can use their accounts to pay for learning services and materials in and outside of their child’s school, they have been able to adjust their student’s instruction according to his or her needs,” wrote Butcher.


Currently, schools in Iowa are scheduled to be open for at least 50 percent of in-person classroom instruction, however schools may also provide a portion of instruction online. If Iowa were to enact an ESA policy, it would provide parents the flexibility to ensure that their children were receiving the education they needed. In other words, ESA resources could be used to help pay for additional online education or tutoring services.


Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation, argues with the uncertainty COVID-19 is causing in education “families are searching for alternatives to the traditional K-12 public school system, such as micro-schools and homeschool co-ops.” DeAngelis argues that education should be funding “individuals instead of systems to empower families — just like we do with several other taxpayer-funded initiatives, including Pell Grants, the GI Bill, pre-K programs, and more.”


Providing more opportunities through ESAs would not just benefit families. “More families would have access to these alternatives if education funding followed children to wherever they receive their educations. Teachers could also benefit from such a system, which would likely offer them smaller class sizes, more autonomy, and higher salaries,” noted DeAngelis.


Currently, Iowa has two school choice programs, the Tuition and Tax Credit and the School Tuition Organization Tax Credit. Both tax credits are helpful, but they are limited in scope. An ESA would allow all Iowans to have greater flexibility in educational opportunities. The Iowa legislature has considered ESA legislation in the past, but no bill has made it through the legislative process. Recent ESA proposals in the Iowa legislature, if passed, would have provided on average between $4,042-$5,613 per student.


In states that have implemented ESAs, lives are being changed because of new opportunities for a better education. Many parents cannot afford either an alternative to the public schools or additional educational services. “It is time to empower the poor to do the same things as the rich, by letting them control the funding that is supposed to educate their children,” states Neal McCluskey, Director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.  Empowering parents with the flexibility and opportunity that ESAs provide will put the educational interests of children first.