Louisiana has taken steps to bring freedom of choice to more students through charter schools and a school voucher program, but these steps should not be the last.
The Pelican State’s voucher program – introduced to New Orleans in 2008 and then expanded statewide in 2012 – has given children from low-income households the option to redirect the tax dollars that would have been spent on their education at a low-rated public school to private school tuition.
But if Louisiana truly wants to give students the freedom to select the learning environment most suitable to their needs, vouchers are not enough. It is time for Louisiana to explore taking the next step towards school choice: Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
ESAs are the latest and greatest school choice program sprouting up across the country. So far, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee have already adopted their own versions. Here’s why:
Like vouchers, ESAs let qualifying students use tax dollars to pay tuition at private schools. But ESAs don’t have to stop, or necessarily even go, there. ESAs can be used to pay for homeschooling expenses, special education services, tutoring sessions, textbooks and other school supplies.
Learning can be customized with ESAs since they give parents the flexibility to purchase any and as many programs and supplies they feel would improve their child’s education. And even better, any leftover money in a child’s account at the end of the year can roll over for coming years. Some states even allow left over money to be put towards college.
There is no doubt ESAs can provide new opportunities to Louisiana students, but the question is, which students? Of the five states that offer ESA accounts, student eligibility standards vary:
Arizona, the first state to enact ESAs, initially used them to replace its voucher program for children with special needs. For legal reasons, it has gone through several reforms and can now be used by not only special needs children, but also those in poor-performing schools, children of military families, children in foster care, children on Indian reservations and siblings of all eligible children.
Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida ESAs can be used on special education programs only.
And then there is Nevada, the first state to grant eligibility to every public school student. Nevada’s program is certainly on the right track. Everyone pays taxes, so everyone should be able to receive education money in an account. Matthew Ladner drove this point home in a recent blog post about Nevada’s ESA program:
“I do not believe that there would be a public school system today if Horace Mann had labored under a notion that high-income people should pay school taxes but should not be eligible to send their children…Wealthy people pay their taxes just like poor people do, and in most places they pay far more taxes. Rather than make the well to do enemies of public education, our forefathers decided (wisely in my view) to allow them to attend like everyone else.”
Louisiana should follow this approach. So how exactly would a universal ESA program work? Here are a few general guidelines:
In Nevada, all students entering kindergarten and all those who attended public school the year prior qualify for an ESA. A similar model would be a good start in Louisiana. Money could be put into a student’s ESA annually, with the student receiving 80-90 percent of the cost of their yearly public school tuition.
This funding method is similar to Louisiana’s voucher program, which allots 85 percent public school costs. This amount works well in Louisiana because the state has average private elementary and secondary tuitions of $5,061 and $6,413, less expensive than public school costs.
To compare, last school year, the Minimum Foundation Program – the organization that determines the cost per student to attend public school – found public school costs ranged from $7,760 to $11,212 per student. For this reason, vouchers have saved the state millions and ESAs would do the same.
On that note, economists suggest ESAs will actually lower the cost of tuition since parents – eager to take advantage of buying school supplies, paying for tutors or saving for college – will have an incentive to shop around for the best education at the lowest price.
It should be noted that ESAs are a relatively new program, and will certainly requiring adjustments are new ideas are discovered. With that being said, there is no reason for Louisiana to avoid giving them a try.
ESAs provide more choice to parents and students while allowing the state to save money. This is quite the opposite of the conventional public school system that often produces poor results and fails to offer a range of alternatives for families.
The effort required to implement and improve ESAs over time will be small in comparison to the tremendous improvement they could bring to one of Louisiana’s most pressing concerns.