Education Savings Accounts

The longer students remain on Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship program, the more likely their parents are to spend money on curriculum, tutoring and specialized services, a new working paper finds.

The study, “Distribution of Education Savings Accounts Usage Among Families,” by Michelle Lofton of the University of Georgia and Martin Lueken of EdChoice, examines the spending patterns of families on the scholarship program over multiple years. It is the largest of its kind to date.

The Gardiner Scholarship, created in 2014 and named after State Sen. Andy Gardiner’s family, provides parents of students with special needs with a scholarship worth an average of around $10,000. It is set up as an education savings account (ESA) where parents can use the funds on more than just school tuition and fees. They also can purchase textbooks, school supplies, curriculum, tutoring, therapies and more. 

The scholarship is currently limited to students with specific needs such as autism, Down syndrome and spina bifida. Last year, 17,508 students received a Gardiner Scholarship, with more than 9,000 enrolling in one of 1,870 private schools.

According to the researchers, family spending patterns change the longer they remain on the program. As families become more familiar with the program, they begin to spend more money on expenses other than tuition and fees, representing a desire to further customize their child’s education.

The study also finds rural families are more likely to spend the scholarship on curriculum and instruction than on private school tuition.

“These findings imply that families enrolled in ESAs are learning from prior usage and are able to customize education to areas beyond tuition over the course of their child’s educational life cycle,” the researchers wrote.

Since 2015, families have averaged 21 purchases, spending $8,373 a year. Usage increased from 60% of funds in 2015 to 88% by 2019.

Expenditures on tuition increased by 11%, or $550 over that time. But expenditures on instructional materials, specialized services, and college tuition savings plans increased considerably more — instructional materials by 400%, or $1,375, and specialized services by 200%, or $450.

The number of purchases increased over time as well. In 2015 families averaged just nine purchases, but by 2019 families were averaging 30 purchases a year.  

Spending varied by race and income as well.

Parents of Black and Hispanic students spent more of their scholarship, on average, than white students. They were also 7 to 9% more likely to spend the scholarship on school tuition than white students.

Parents in the top-quartile income areas spent more money on fewer items but spent less on tuition and more on tutoring and specialized services than families in bottom-quartile income areas.

The Gardiner Scholarship will become part of the Family Empowerment Scholarship for the 2021-22 school year, though the ESA component of the program will remain exclusive to children with special needs. Florida’s McKay Scholarship, a voucher program for students with special needs, will also merge with the Family Empowerment Scholarship in 2022.

Parents or guardians may apply for the scholarship here.

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Daniel Martinez, former aide to Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., is Florida coalitions leader for the LIBRE Initiative.

As a kid whose family immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1992, Daniel Martinez knows what it’s like to suddenly have choices after years of living without them.

He also knows it takes hard work to build the American dream from scratch.

“My mom taught herself cosmetology, and she’s a nail technician, so she would work from home to raise my brother and me,” said Martinez, a longtime legislative aide who recently was tapped to be Florida coalitions director of the LIBRE Initiative.  “My mom, I believe, is the American dream.”

The LIBRE Initiative is the Hispanic-facing affiliate of Americans for Prosperity, a national grassroots activist group that espouses small government and greater individual freedom, including education choice. Earlier this year, Americans for Prosperity and LIBRE sponsored a six-figure public relations campaign to help pass the largest expansion of school choice in Florida’s history.

Martinez sees education choice as a key issue for all Floridians, but especially for the Hispanic community, whose members may not always live in the ZIP code of their dream district school.

“Too many people just send their kids there because ‘that’s where we go,’” said Martinez, who graduated from a South Florida district high school in 2000, two years before Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed landmark legislation that established the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program, which provides tax credits to corporate donors, funds scholarships for students who meet state income guidelines. Step Up For Students, which helps manage the scholarship program, hosts this blog.

Martinez sees his new role at LIBRE as a natural next step in his career after spending nine years working as a legislative aide for state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah.

While working at Publix, Marinez considered a career in business but discovered his passion for policy and politics while studying at Florida International University. Two of his professors, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, and another who worked as a pollster, held political discussions after class. Martinez rarely missed a session and devoured books on the subject.

In 2012, he found his niche as a volunteer for Diaz, who had just won his party’s primary for a House seat.

“That was like getting your master’s and your doctorate,” he said.

Martinez loved interacting with policymakers, lobbyists, parents and educators and signed on as Martinez’s aide after he won the seat. When Diaz won his state Senate seat in 2018, Martinez followed him.

“He’s like family,” he said of the former Senate education committee chairman. He said working with Diaz prepared him well for his role at LIBRE.

 “While others might say, ‘Print something,’ or ‘Get me a soda,’ I was taught ‘You need to learn and be able to explain this because there is going to be a time when I can’t,’” he said. “Those are the tools that helped me so much. Leading LIBRE in Florida, my job is to create more leaders. We want more leaders for the next generation.”

For that to happen, he said, education freedom is paramount. Even in Florida, which already has one of the most robust choice programs in the United States, he said, “It’s not about whether we have school choice; it’s about how far do we want to go.”

As Martinez sees it, the goal is universal choice.

 “Really, it’s about the erasing of district lines,” he said. “The money should follow the students.”

Martinez also is interested in homeschooling, learning pods and other innovative forms of education that involve unbundled services from various providers and which are made possible for all regardless of income through a choice system that uses flexible spending accounts, also known as education savings accounts or ESAs.

For him, learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom; it continues during tennis practice and music lessons and evening tutoring sessions.

“That to me is the ultimate endgame,” he said.

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On this episode, Tuthill talks with the chairman of Indiana’s House Education Committee. Behning carried a choice bill this legislative session that was folded into the state’s budget, creating a new $10 million education savings account program for students with special needs that will be funded at 90% of regular per-pupil funding. The voucher program will have the highest income eligibility of any means-tested program in the country.

The two discuss the landscape of Indiana’s choice programs, which already were considered a national model, and ponder choice expansion opportunities to come, including better transportation options for families. Behning argues that the more choice families have, the better off the Hoosier state’s education system will be.

“I see this as a social justice issue. Providing opportunities for parents that don’t have the ability to make a choice by moving to a community where schools are better – we’re giving them another option.”


·       An overview of Indiana’s robust education choice programs

·       This year’s legislative process that led to the creation of a new special needs education savings account

·       How federal funding impacted Indiana’s overall budget this year in the wake of COVID-19

·       Opportunities public school districts have to unbundle services to better serve students who utilize education savings accounts

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While school choice policies are overwhelmingly popular across all major demographics, Black parents, when provided a definition of those policies, support them to a higher degree than white parents according to a new survey from EdChoice.

The survey, which included 405 Black parents of K-12 students as well as a nationally representative sample of 1,134 K-12 school parents, shows 81% of Black parents favored vouchers, 10 percentage points higher than the supportive share of white parents. Notably, there was no difference in support between low-income Black parents and high-income Black parents.

Meanwhile, 80% of Black parents support education savings accounts compared to 76% of white parents; support for charter schools is slightly higher among Black parents at 74% compared to 73% for white parents.


For the survey, vouchers were described as a system that allows parents the option of sending their child to the school of their choice, whether that school is public or private, including both religious and non-religious schools, using tax dollars currently allocated to a school district to pay partial or full tuition for the child’s school.

Income levels were broken down into low income (less than $35,000); middle income ($35,000 to $75,000); and high income (more than $75,000). Support for vouchers among those levels was 79%, 83% and 79%, respectively.

The survey described education savings accounts as a government-authorized savings account with restricted but multiple uses for educational purposes that can be used to pay for school tuition, tutoring, online education programs, therapies for students with special needs, textbooks or other instructional materials, and future college expenses.

Level of support among income levels was slightly more varied on this question, with 75% of low-income families, 86% of middle-income families, and 81% of high-income families showing favor for education savings accounts.

The survey described public charter schools as public schools that have more control over their budget, staff and curriculum and are exempt from many existing public school regulations.

The survey queried respondents on several other education-related topics and returned these key findings:

·       Black parents have maintained similar levels of comfort when it comes to their children returning to in-person learning when compared to March. Nearly half of Black parents believe it will be safe for their children to go back by September 2021.

·       Nevertheless, both Black and Hispanic parents are more likely than white parents to prefer schooling take place at home in some capacity. Just over 40% of Black parents signaled they would like schooling to occur at home three or more days per week after the pandemic.

·       Over two-fifths of Black parents say they are currently participating in or looking to form or join a learning pod – an increase of 5 percentage points since March. Hispanic parents remain more interested in both pods and tutoring than both Black and white parents.

·       Both Black and Hispanic parents are more likely than white parents to believe that offering additional resources for their children would be beneficial for their development this upcoming school year.

·       Black parents are less likely than both white and Hispanic parents to either vaccinate themselves or their children.

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