Education Savings Accounts

Editor’s note: This opinion piece from Tim Benson, a policy analyst in the government relations department at The Heartland Institute, appeared Friday on the institute’s website. It describes Senate Bill 48, which cleared its last committee in March. A companion bill in the House, House Bill 7045, won approval from the House Appropriations Committee last week and is headed for a floor vote.

An education bill making its way through the Florida Senate would, among other things, streamline the state’s five education choice programs by combining them into two education savings account programs.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and Hope Scholarship Program for bullied students would be merged into the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, which would then transition to an education savings account program. While the Tax Credit Scholarship and the Hope Scholarship were previously funded via tax credits through private donors, the new combined Family Empowerment Program were entirely be funded out of state coffers.

Eligibility for participation in the program would be increased to families with household incomes up to 300% above the federal poverty level.

Meanwhile, the Gardiner Scholarship Program and the John M. McKay Scholarship Program for students with disabilities would be merged into the McKay-Gardiner Scholarship Program.

Turning the non-education savings account programs into education savings accounts will also make available more education options that parents can use to customize and tailor to meet the unique needs of each individual child.  

Florida’s choice programs have been a great success for participating students. A 2019 study from the Urban Institute, expanding on previous research, found Tax Credit Scholarship students participating in the program for at least four years are 43% more likely to enroll in a four-year college and 20% more likely to graduate than their public school peers.

A March 2021 study from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas also showed that low-income students and students with disabilities had “had demonstrated dramatic [academic] gains compared to their similarly-disadvantaged peers nationally” due to the state’s education choice programs.

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An education choice bill that would streamline options for families who receive state scholarships won approval today from the House Appropriations Committee and is headed for a floor vote.

HB 7045 passed with Democratic Reps. James Bush III of Opa-Locka, Anika Omphroy of Sunrise, Nicholas Duran of Miami, and Patricia H. Williams of Fort Lauderdale joining the Republicans in supporting the bill.

The bill would simplify navigation of the programs for families by merging the state’s two scholarship programs for students with unique abilities, McKay and Gardiner, and combining them with the Family Empowerment Scholarship program approved in 2019. One category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship would serve students with unique abilities and special needs while the other would continue to serve lower-income families.

The bill would leave intact the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which is funded by corporate tax donations, and the Hope Scholarship program for students who have experienced bullying at their district schools. The bill would simplify eligibility requirements by aligning qualifying income levels of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship with the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Each program currently has different income requirements.

The bill also would provide one-stop shopping for families by placing management of the Family Empowerment program under nonprofit scholarship organizations, which include Step Up For Students, host of this blog.

Under the bill, families currently receiving flexible spending dollars under the Gardiner program would continue to receive their scholarships as education savings accounts; McKay’s traditional scholarships would be converted to education savings accounts starting in the 2022-23 school year. Families currently participating in each program would receive whichever dollar amounts were higher, whether that was in current law or in HB 7045.

“Current McKay or Gardiner students will never receive one dollar less than they do today,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay.

The bill also would make it easier for lower-income families to qualify for their category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship program by eliminating a requirement that students attend a district school the previous year to qualify for the scholarship. That requirement resulted in some families whose incomes took a hit due to a tragedy or during the pandemic from being turned down for scholarships that would have helped them keep their children in their private schools.

Fine said the bill “reduces complexity without consequences.”

He said in approving the patchwork of programs, legislators “created needless complexity by having four different scholarship programs that try to solve two different problems. We want to address the complexity without taking away any choice.”

The bill was filed as a companion to SB 48, which cleared its last committee in March. It now heads to the House floor for approval.

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Editor’s note: You can read how three choice scholarship families plan to use their federal stimulus checks to supplement their children’s education here.

Congress recently passed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that includes $1,400 direct payments to most Americans and their dependents. That followed the $600 checks Washington distributed liberally in December, and $1,200 payments Uncle Sam handed out last spring.

Free money! To do with as you please!

It’s interesting how that strategy is often frowned upon when it comes to K-12 education. Consider the opposition to education savings accounts. Giving people a pot of money to spend on their children’s education? Why, they can’t be trusted to make the right decisions!

“Parents can be fooled by inflated grades that make them believe their child is doing better, as well as hucksters who promise miracles with computer systems and magical thinking.”

“The bill … provides that parents, not educators, be the evaluators of their children’s educational progress.”

“I heard in committee that families should ‘shop around.’ We’re asking our most disadvantaged, least engaged families, to ‘shop around’?”

That’s the messy part about freedom: Sometimes people use it in ways you wouldn’t.

Critics of private school vouchers, and education savings accounts in particular, argue that this money properly belongs in more-trusted hands – public schools. Not public school parents, mind you, but public school districts, where the professionals can make wiser choices on how it will be spent.

This favors institutions over individuals and bolsters a ruling class that purports to know what’s best for you.

This mindset is hardly new. Benighted commoners have always needed to be protected from themselves by their enlightened betters – or so the latter rationalized it. Freedom threatened the proper order, sowed chaos – and, of course, dislodged the powerful from their perches.

The printing press is one of history’s great social disruptors. By making the printed word more available to the masses, it democratized knowledge. That not only took dead aim at the economic security of those who were tasked with copying texts by hand. It also decentralized authority by undermining the gatekeepers who decided what ideas would be published and how they would be disseminated.

One of the earliest beneficiaries of the printing press was Martin Luther, whose challenges to Catholic orthodoxy were read far and wide, spurring the Protestant Reformation.

In his novel “The Justification of Johann Gutenberg,” author Blake Morrison imagines a dialogue in which Gutenberg explains to a skeptical monk what he envisioned his new invention would accomplish:

Gutenberg: To help men and women be literate, to give them knowledge, to make books so cheap even a peasant might afford them: that is my hope, yes.

[…]

Head monk: The word of God needs to be interpreted by priests, not spread about like dung.

Gutenberg: I do not wish to despoil the Word.

Head monk: But it will happen. To hand it about to all and sundry is languorous. Would you have ploughmen and weavers debating the Gospel in taverns?

Gutenberg: If that is what they want to do.

Head monk: But what of the dangers? It would be like giving a candle to infants.

Education choice is to the public education professional class what the printing press was to the clerisy in the 15th century.

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West Virginia is among a cavalcade of states that are creating additional educational opportunities for families this legislative session.

Editor’s note: This commentary from Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation and a redefinED contributor, appears on The Heritage Foundation’s website.

School districts are slowly beginning to reopen in-person instruction after being closed for nearly a year – or, in many places, for over a year. While this is a wonderful development, it will never erase what parents experienced last year: uncertainty, inconsistency, and, in some cases, ineptitude from public schools.

The events of the last year have demonstrated to many families that public schools are not always the reliable institutions many thought they were. It also opened their eyes to just how powerful the teachers unions are, and revealed what many already suspected: that their modus operandiis not to support teachers who want to teach but to score political wins.

Thankfully, in response to these disappointments, multiple state legislatures are undertaking one of the biggest expansions of school choice in history. Here are some states to watch:

West Virginia

On March 29, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed into law the most expansive school choice program in the country, a nearly universal option for education savings accounts.

This is monumental. It is the nation’s first universal education savings account program open to all children in the state. Students who choose to participate in the education savings account option will receive 100% of what the state would have spent on their education in their prior public school—or approximately $4,600 per year—which they can then use to pay for private school tuition, online learning, private tutoring, and a variety of other education services, products, and providers.

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Amid the hype of VIP school visits, parents, mostly those who are Black, brown and/or poor, must realize there is no Superman coming to save them.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” — Nelson Mandela

As a mom and education activist, I reflected upon Women’s History Month in March as a time to honor ourselves and the many diverse women, past and present, who have shattered and continue to shatter that infamous glass ceiling of gender norms. One such honor is the election of Kamala Harris, the 49th vice president of the United States. Harris made history as the first woman, and woman of color, to hold this office.

Adding to the whirlwind of March experiences and emotions, those of us from Connecticut and Pennsylvania had the distinct pleasure of celebrating First Lady Biden’s inaugural visit to our respective states.

Finally, our Congressional lawmakers confirmed the 12th U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, from our great state of Connecticut—the first Latino to serve in that role. 

Lots of firsts. Lots of excitement. 

It is easy to get caught up in the hype, but once the applause subsides and the presidential motorcades drive off to their next events, parents, mostly Black, brown and/or poor, once again realize there is no Superman coming to save them. 

Once again, Black and brown students and those with special educational needs and those from poorly resourced communities understand that despite a deadly pandemic, we face the constant reminder of the dangers of returning to “business as usual,” especially with more than $122 billion from the Biden administration American Rescue Plan about to pour into school districts across this country. 

There has been a lot of focus on dollar amounts and making sure schools receive additional funds to address pandemic-related learning loss and other issues. Sadly, there has been very little conversation about fiscal and personal accountability.

Where are the meaningful recommendations with a laser-focus on student-centered approaches that will ensure that millions of America’s students get the customized educational support they need to get back on track academically and in life, along with the resources that need to stay in place to ensure children stay on track beyond the pandemic?

As parents, especially Black parents, and education activists, we do not get the luxury of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. We must follow the money and demand that the COVID-19 education rescue and recovery funding efforts center around the academic and life needs of all children, not the ideological and ego needs of adults in public education.

Regardless of ZIP code or income level, we must continue to learn and understand how the Biden administration plans to embrace various schooling opportunities to help children get back on track academically following a year of mass school closures across this country due to the unpredictable and unprecedented pandemic.

Reflecting on this, I want to raise two major red flags: the dangers of normalizing failure under this new administration by trying to apply pre-pandemic “one size fits all children” educational solutions; and not centering on children’s academic and life needs in public education during pandemic education rescue and recovery efforts

I define normalizing failure as doing the same “one size fits all children” strategies in public education spaces and expecting different results, especially for marginalized populations. 

Our current and pre-pandemic public education system leaves entirely too many children behind. Why not just do the right thing and center children in public education, pivot accordingly, and embrace best practices that give more children access to customized learning experiences: charter schools, magnets, expanded vocational opportunities like the Christo Rey model, and expansion of education savings accounts? How about ensuring that every traditional public school child has access to massive tutoring support?  

Do you notice a common theme here? All these recommendations have the child as the focal point for the strategy.

It took a pandemic for us to realize just how many students have been left behind by normalized failure; parents were not asking for more because they had become accustomed to less. The virus disrupted the K-12 landscape in ways that allowed families to see behind the curtain—and to ask more questions.

Why isn’t my school offering what my child needs? How are we supposed to get the special needs services we depend on if the school will not open? Why can’t we have a hybrid model going forward? What happens if a bunch of parents got together and formed our own school?

Failing children is still an option, even though it should never be, but it is not the only option, and families now know they do not have to accept it. That is life changing. 

My sentiments regarding the dangers of not centering children in public education were validated as I listened to Kentucky and California high school students on a March 22 panel I participated in from the National Association of State Boards of Education legislative conference that featured Secretary Cardona and Congressman Bobby Scott of the House Education & Labor Committee. 

This very enlightening panel was titled, “Voices from the Field: Perspectives from Teachers, Students, and Families on Education in the Pandemic.” It highlighted a very important “Coping with Covid19” student-to-student survey from the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team of Lexington, Kentucky. 

The goals of our NASBE session were straightforward, and every taxpayer and parent should take note:

·       Demystifying educational systems by fostering an understanding of practice vs. policy gaps, better known now as pandemic practice and policy gulfs, that existed prior to the pandemic that were exacerbated or ameliorated by the new context or specific local/state actions

·       Putting a face to the educational justice fight by sharing and highlighting on the ground, lived experiences of diverse teachers, families, and students amidst this unpredictable and unprecedented pandemic to emphasize how vital diverse voices from the field are to designing and implementing local, state, and federal policy

·       Offering concrete next steps to all local and state board of education members to ensure all students are the center of public education regardless of race, ZIP code or income level. 

As a parent, I feel compelled to highlight current policy recommendations that need immediate course correction before billions of dollars pour into school districts across the country for COVID-19 education recovery efforts that do not actually meet students’ individualized academic needs. We can no longer:

·       Fail to recognize charter school students as public-school children, denying them fair access to educational supports and resources that traditional K-12 public school students routinely receive 

·       Fail to embrace the power of educational scholarships, leaving behind students who want to pursue non-traditional opportunities such as private school, hybrid schooling or micro schooling. More than 20 states have introduced education savings account bills. ESAs are the most popular and flexible form of school choice. We should be running toward them as a policy solution. West Virginia and Kentucky are prime examples of states that have embraced groundbreaking school choice programs in recent weeks.

·       Fail to ensure every child in America has access to effective year-round tutoring and before- and after-school supports; this is critical and can be done in partnership with communities and faith leaders and not in lieu of traditional schooling or help in the classroom.

As I listened recently to First Lady Biden and Secretary Cardona, there was a temptation to think coming out of this pandemic will be easy. We just need to spend more money, and things will eventually get back to the way they used to be.

That’s simply not true.

Making quality education available and accessible to all—especially to Black and brown students—has never been easy work. It’s even harder now. Instead of just focusing on funding and metrics and talking points, we need to take a bigger-picture approach and address the fundamental flaws that have long plagued our traditional public school system and have created generational disparities based on race and income. 

The one-size-fits-all approach we used to take wasn’t working before the pandemic, and it sure as heck won’t work now. Let’s make some major policy changes so families can finally have access to the opportunities they’ve long searched out but often couldn’t reach. 

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