With the election of Donald Trump and the appointment of Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education, school choice activists are seeing a real opportunity for education reform for the first time in years. But while the federal conversation is largely focused on creating a school voucher program, there is another debate taking place at the state level around the country.
Education Saving Account (ESA) programs have been implemented in several states already, and even more are debating adopting their own ESA initiative. ESAs work by placing the money that would normally be sent to public schools into a monitored bank account and allowing parents to spend the funds on a personalized education plan that they believe is best for their child.
Arizona was the first state to adopt an ESA program back in 2011. The program was geared towards parents of children with learning disabilities. In fact, almost all ESA programs to date have focused on students with special needs, which makes sense considering that 96% of parents think that a learning disorder can be overcome with proper education.
Other ESA programs, like the Personal Savings Account Program that is currently moving through the North Carolina Senate, would extend their reach to other disenfranchised children, such as children in foster care and children with active duty military parents.
Some states, however, would like to see the program extended universally. Nevada led the charge in 2015 with a bill that would allow any family to apply for an ESA, although the bill faced a legal challenge from the Nevada branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The subsequent ruling did not overturn the universal ESA but did put it on hold while lawmakers implemented a dedicated source of funds.
Then, in April 2017, Arizona became the first state to institute a functional ESA Program that has no or few restrictions on admittance.
The appeal for such a program is understandable. Private schools offer a number of advantages: they have a better student to teacher ratios (on average, 12.5:1 for private schools compared to 15.4:1 in public schools), produce better scores on the SAT, and boast a higher percentage of students enrolling in college.
But not all parents and teachers are on board with the program, as the debate over an ESA bill in Texas is currently highlighting.
For some Texan parents, like Charles Luke, there is the risk that when students with disabilities enroll in private schools, they lose their protection under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“They say, ‘Well, if parents want to give up those protections… that’s their business. That’s their option,’ but I don’t view it that way. I view it as the protections are for the children not for the parents,” Luke told CBS Austin.
For others parents, it’s a matter of choice. Or as Ezzard Castillo, a Texas parent and headmaster of River City Christian School, a San Antonio school specializing in educating students with learning disabilities, said to Spectrum News Austin, “No system, no government, nobody knows better than the parent so that’s why I’m a big advocate for school choice.”