Last week, the Virginia senate passed what could become the nation’s sixth education savings account law, pending a governor’s signature. HB 389 would allow children with special needs to apply for an account. With an account, Virginia would deposit a portion of a child’s funds from the state formula in a private bank account that parents would use to buy educational products and services for their children.
Virginia’s proposal is similar to laws enacted in Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Education savings accounts in these states allow families to use a child’s account to customize a child’s learning experience with online classes, private school tuition, curricular materials like textbooks, and, critically for children with special needs, educational therapy like speech and occupational therapy.
In Virginia, 13 percent of students—some 161,000 children—have special needs and could use an account to find educational services to help them succeed. As this blog has explained previously, Arizona families are hiring individual tutors to help children with autism, students who were struggling to learn basic skills prior to using an account. Others are combining public school extracurricular activities with home-based instruction, which gives children the chance to interact with their peers and learn in a setting that meets their needs. Such opportunities give hope to children and their parents.
Education savings accounts also provide lawmakers with a solution for large, statewide policy issues looming on the horizon.
Research from Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. at the Foundation for Excellence in Education finds that Virginia and Georgia have something in common: High age-dependency ratios. For Virginia, their score of +19 means the state has a “high percentage of people out of the workforce and a relatively small percentage of people trying to cover the costs of their education, retirement, and health care.”
The U.S. Census projects that Virginia’s public school enrollment will increase by 300,000 students over the next 15 years while the population of adults over 65 will almost double. The expansion in these two sectors will put a strain on taxpayer-funded services in education and health care.
Georgia finds itself in a similar position. Georgia’s +16 score is slightly below the national average of +17, but still points to a future where fewer people are pulling the cart of social programs and increasing numbers are sitting in the cart. The Census estimates Georgia’s student population will increase by a half-million students, while its elderly population will increase by nearly 1 million.
Education savings accounts and other private school choice options like tax credit scholarships (already available in Virginia and Georgia) will help ease the pressure on taxpayers who would be asked to pay for new district school buildings and public school staff. Parental choice in education comes at a significant discount compared to district school services. In Arizona, education savings accounts for children with special needs are worth 90 percent of what is spent on these children in traditional schools while, on average, mainstream students’ accounts amount to 50-60 percent of what taxpayers spend per child in district schools.
Virginia and Georgia badly need solutions like these. Education savings accounts improve the quality of life for participating families and can provide students with choices as the demands for public services increase.
Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.