As the school year fast approaches, only one item in the curriculum seems guaranteed: change.
Maine students will resume school in some capacity this fall, though the year promises to look different than any other before. A return to in-person instruction brings with it new COVID-adjusted learning environments, which may include reduced class sizes, spaced desks and staggered schedules. And if schools opt to move online, students and parents will have to adapt to distance learning, which most only dipped their toes into this spring.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the upcoming school year and student safety, parents now more than ever deserve a say in their child’s education. Education savings accounts specifically would expand school choice, with the added benefit of saving money for taxpayers and school districts.
Each year, the state allocates funding for every Maine student receiving a K-12 education, which goes directly to school districts. With an ESA, however, the money follows the student. Ninety percent of what the state would spend on that student is loaded onto a restricted-use debit card, which parents use for educational services, including textbooks, online classes, special education or private school tuition. To ensure the funds are appropriately spent, parents must submit quarterly expense reports to the state.
ESA programs currently exist in five states and serve more than 20,000 students. In general, ESAs earn high marks from participating families. Among parents with students enrolled in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account Program, a Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice survey found that 71 percent said they were “very satisfied” with the program. Because parents are able to customize their child’s education to fit his or her needs, it is no surprise that ESAs – and school choice programs in general – have track records of success.
Education savings accounts are offered primarily to students with physical or intellectual disabilities, or students from low-performing areas. However, given the far-reaching effects of COVID-19, an ESA program in Maine should be made available to all K-12 students.
A recent American Federation for Children poll found that even if schools reopen, 40 percent of parents are likely to pursue homeschooling or online school. ESAs could help facilitate this shift, especially for low-income families unable to afford homeschooling or online schooling on their own. ESAs allow parents to invest in services conducive to at-home learning, such as private or online tutoring and virtual special education.
Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy says that college professors and high school teachers could work as private tutors to meet increased demands. And if states relax the requirement that private tutors hold state-teaching licenses in addition to bachelor’s degrees, she notes that professionals can work as tutors, too, offering students specialized knowledge in their areas of expertise.
ESAs help not only students, but also school districts facing budget cuts as a result of the virus. While opponents argue that ESAs take funding away from public schools, they are actually shown to increase per-pupil spending. Because no local education dollars go to ESAs, they can reduce a school’s enrollment without reducing its funding. A report from the Goldwater Institute found that in Arizona, for example, ESAs direct over $600 per participant back to public school students.
ESAs will also alleviate expenses for taxpayers, as they educate students for a fraction of the cost of public schools. In the 2018-2019 school year, Maine spent an average of $12,442 per student. If Maine were to adopt an ESA funding plan, we would save roughly $1,200 per student. Assuming 10 percent of students participate in an ESA program, Maine could economize around $22.4 million per year.
Finally, ESAs could help prevent overcrowding in public schools, a concern that has taken new precedence amid the pandemic. Students with ESAs may opt for online learning or transfer to a private school, freeing up more space for students in public schools to safely distance.
An ESA program would be a cost-effective way to ensure that Maine students’ educational needs are met during this challenging time. Maine should redirect education dollars to students, not districts, and give families the power to determine their child’s education.
This item was originally published in the Portland Press Herald.