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.