Coronavirus

Education savings accounts provide families more schooling options amid COVID-19

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During periods of crisis, some of the most innovative solutions to problems have been developed. Consider, for instance, some of the creative responses to the COVID-19 crisis so far—distilleries have started making hand sanitizer to meet a health care need, the Zoom platform is now a standard mode of communication for many organizations, and throughout Maine and the rest of the United States, telehealth doctor’s visits are increasingly the norm. Necessity spurs innovation.

The COVID-19 crisis is presenting Maine with a perfect opportunity to reimagine a system that needs immediate change—our education system.

In a working draft list of recommendations for re-opening schools during the COVID-19 crisis, Maine’s Department of Education recommends that we needed to “encourage visionary risk takers to create nontraditional models and plans,” adding that, “[t]his is the time for innovation and big thinking.”

The COVID-19 crisis has caught everyone by surprise, and our public school systems have done the best that they can to provide a sound education for students with the resources that they have at their disposal. Realistically, though, our public school system is not flexible enough to provide an optimal level of education while effectively implementing health precautions.

This is not due to a lack of effort on behalf of schools, but is an inherent part of the public school model.

In the event of a large-scale outbreak in Maine, public schools are a prime location for the spread of COVID-19. Public schools often need to initiate large assemblies; students use the same restrooms and gymnasiums; and safety drills, such as fire and bomb drills, must be implemented.

While kids appear to have less severe reactions to COVID-19 when they contract the virus–– and states and education associations are developing ways to slow the spread of COVID-19––many caretakers do not feel comfortable sending their kids back to public school classrooms this fall.

The implementation of Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) might be an innovative solution that would lessen the risks associated with going back to school this fall.

The program works by placing a certain amount of state funds, federal funds, or both, into savings accounts for students. Funding allowances vary by state, but all ESA programs generally cover expenses such as private, charter or homeschool tuition, curriculum materials, online education expenses, specialized tutoring, transportation fees, and even college tuition.

Five other states have established ESAs since 2011, and now Maine could try this new educational format. 

A bill proposing that 90% of the state’s share of per-pupil education spending be allocated for ESAs made rounds through Maine’s legislature in 2017, but unfortunately the bill did not pass. 

Opponents were concerned about the defunding of public schools. However, other states have managed to maintain funding for their public school systems while allocating 90 percent of state per-pupil spending to ESAs. Arizona and Nevada are two notable examples. 

ESAs remain an affordable option for Maine, in addition to providing an appealing educational model for caretakers during our current crisis.

Caretakers with health concerns and caretakers who have children with health concerns are especially worried about how they are going to provide an education for their children this year. Homeschooling might be the best option for these families, and there are plenty of resources available, both online and on paper. In Maine, average homeschooling costs range between $400 and $500 per year.

Private schools are a good option for those who are concerned about sending their kids back to school. They offer smaller class sizes to parents, which is a key consideration for many caretakers. In Maine, there are at least ten private schools that charge less than $6,000 a year for tuition. 

ESAs still allow caretakers to send their children to public and charter schools for those who still want that option.

States who utilize ESAs are overwhelmingly happy with their new educational system—over 70 percent of caretakers who use ESAs and who have been surveyed are “very satisfied” with the ESA model.

As of June, Maine’s DOE has not decided if students will be returning to classrooms this fall. The beginning of the school year is quickly approaching.

Caretakers have a responsibility to provide quality education to their children while also maintaining student safety. It isn’t clear that sending students back to school will be an optimal—or even viable—choice for everyone. 

Maine’s Department of Education should consider recommending the implementation of ESAs to the legislative body, and state lawmakers should take an open-minded approach toward  implementing ESAs this upcoming school year.

About Julia Bentley

As Maine Policy Institute’s newest policy intern, Julia Bentley is excited to research and write about policies that promote freedom and personal responsibility. Julia graduated from John Brown University in 2018, interned with the Heritage Foundation in 2018, and was a fellow at the John Jay Institute in 2019. Her primary policy interests are health, welfare, and education reform, and she is hoping to learn more about how these policy areas are addressed at the state level during her time at Maine Policy Institute.

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