A Lesson in ESAs

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) have dominated the school choice policy conversations as of late. However, many people are still unsure what ESAs truly offer, and some of the terminology can be confusing.

ESAs are similar to an Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) or a Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) in terms of the flexibility they provide but are used to pay for education expenses. A portion of the state’s allocated dollars that are already designated for each child’s public education are instead loaded onto a debit card that parents use to customize their child’s education. This money can be used for any educational resources including tutors, textbooks, private-school, homeschooling curriculum, and virtual learning.

Often these programs are confused with Coverdell Education Savings Accounts which are instead set up with personal money invested into tax-free accounts. These Funds can be used at any eligible educational institution whether that be elementary, secondary, or postsecondary. With a regular ESA, funds are coming from “legislative appropriations, local districts, and the federal government.

Several states have already implemented ESA programs. For example, Arizona offers ESAs to children with special needs, attending failing public schools, in the foster care system, or children of active-duty military. Nevada offers a universal ESA program, allowing all public school students the opportunity to obtain quality education in the environment that best fits his or her learning needs.

Parents know their child’s learning needs best, so they are best equipped to decide how these resources should be spent to ensure their child obtains a quality education. By having control over the money the state is already spending on their child, parents who were previously limited by income or geography, now have access to more educational options for their children. Parents can keep their child in their school if they’re happy with it, but ESAs give more options to parents who feel that their child’s current school environment isn’t meeting their needs.

You can learn even more about ESAs at esaga.org.

Protecting Students and Taxpayers in Education

In the late 19th century, Hawaiian sugar farmers struggled to prevent rats from eating their crop. Farmers introduced the Indian Mongoose to the islands to save the harvest.

Unfortunately, mongoose are active during the day, while rats are nocturnal. The mongoose did not quell the rat problem but even now the mongoose severely impact ground-nesting birds, including Hawaii’s state bird, the Nene, and endangered sea turtles. The mongoose is considered an invasive species in Hawaii.

We cannot always predict the outcomes of our decisions in the natural world, and history proves that the same is true in public life. Want the rich to pay more so we can balance the budget? In Maryland, the millionaires moved out. Want to increase the sales tax so people will smoke less? Now cigarettes are smuggled out of lower-tax states into other areas.

As the late Yogi Berra instructed, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.

Still, in education, we all want every child’s future to be marked by success and achievement. This blog has explained how education savings accounts can provide Georgia families with opportunities to inspire their children to learn and find quality educational options. With these flexible accounts, families can make multiple decisions about what is best for their child’s education today and save for the future.

However, with every new law, rules and regulations must follow. These rules are important to help prevent fraud and misuse.

Families that use education savings accounts must be protected from fraudulent educators and taxpayers must be protected from mishandling of the accounts. But these rules should be written carefully, otherwise regulation may limit what students can achieve using an account.

In Arizona, where education savings accounts have been available to families since 2011, state policymakers adjusted the law after its enactment to include fraud protection provisions. The Arizona Department of Education must conduct regular account audits to stop misuse so that it does not become widespread.

Yet the department has still not used other measures, such as updating the cards’ technology to prevent a family from buying educational materials at an approved store (such as Walmart) and also purchasing something that has nothing to do with their child’s education, like a TV.

In Florida, lawmakers have enacted strict rules that often require parents using education savings accounts to spend their own money first and then apply for reimbursement from the state. It’s too soon to tell, but Florida may be too cautious with their rules, while Arizona is not cautious enough.

Three lessons are readily available to Georgia lawmakers:

1. Make deposits into education savings accounts quarterly, then audit every quarter. Families using an account should receive deposits every fiscal quarter. If there is misspending, either accidental or purposeful, quarterly audits will prevent the problem from growing.

2. Students should be allowed to use their education savings accounts at educational institutions and for educational products—but nothing beyond these purchases. We have the technology to limit the use of a debit card so that only educational items can be purchased. Policymakers should tell the financial institution distributing the cards that lessons from other states demonstrate this technology is vital in order to protect students and taxpayers.

3. Learn from other states’ mistakes. In healthcare, food stamps, social security and all other government programs, fraud is a fact of life. But that means we must use all the resources available to allow vendors and individuals to report fraud over the phone or online and ask participating educators to help catch misuse. The Goldwater Institute has additional resources available to lawmakers.

Education savings accounts have the potential to help students from different walks of life succeed in their education and beyond. The proper rules must be in place to allow for flexibility while still protecting students and taxpayers. If we are not careful, the rules may stifle innovation and student success. Lessons from states already offering education savings accounts will help to limit unintended consequences.

Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior Fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

2015 Georgia NAEP Scores Show Room for Improvement

While commonly referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress or “NAEP” assesses student knowledge in “math, reading, and other subjects” and has been “viewed as a credible national measure of academic progress.” Last week’s release of NAEP test scores reflect a dismal outlook for Georgia students.

Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said that the national scores were not encouraging and represent an unexpected downturn.

The percentage of Georgia fourth graders reading at a proficient level fell one point from 2013 to 33 percent. Making sure students improve their reading efficiency is a must. If a child is struggling with reading by the time they reach the fourth grade, their ability to learn new concepts and subjects is hindered, and they fall behind in other key areas where reasoning and logic are required.

For eighth grade students, the percentage of students scoring at a proficient level decreased to 30 percent from 32 percent in 2011. Students in the eighth grade must be able to read and comprehend different “works of fiction and nonfiction,” analyze information from different mediums and be able to interpret their findings and present them in a clear report.

For mathematics, fourth grade is when students are not just learning concepts, but are learning to problem-solve. The number of fourth graders who scored proficient in mathematics fell four points to 34 percent in 2015. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that “state education officials were particularly concerned about the four-point drop in fourth-grade math, and planned to refocus efforts on getting students better prepared in ‘foundational’ work.”

Eighth grade mathematic proficiency also decreased in 2015 to 28 percent (from 29 percent in 2013).

Georgia’s proficiency scores put the state on par with Arkansas and South Carolina, with only a point or two difference between the states. Most Southeastern states scored below the national average with the exception of Florida, which scored above the national average in both fourth and eighth grade reading. Florida is also home to the most robust school choice program options in the nation, allowing parent to choose the best learning environment for their children.

For several years Georgia students have fallen short of the national average education scores. Students are falling behind and parents need additional options and resources to put their children in the education environment that best fits their learning needs. Georgia currently has some limited choice programs, but expanding choice – through ESAs or other school choice programs – is the only way to put Georgia students first.