When Gregory Swingle was a toddler, doctors worried autism would prevent him from ever being able to speak. By the time he reached Kindergarten, Gregory was not being well served in the local public school. His mother, Katie, didn’t blame the teachers— she knew Gregory needed a learning environment specifically tailored to his needs.
Katie withdrew Gregory from Florida’s public schools and pursued other options. She was forced to leave her job to drive Gregory to countless appointments with specialists and therapists. Katie’s husband took a second job on the weekends to help pay for Gregory’s therapy.
Money was tight. Katie explained, “Each semester was going to be, ‘Okay, how are we going to pay for this?’”
Fortunately, the Swingles discovered Florida’s education saving account (ESA) program, which allowed them to customize Gregory’s schooling and offset some of the costs.
Today, Gregory is not only about to speak but he can also write in cursive— and Katie thinks he will be ready to re-join public school in the near future, in no small part thanks to Gregory’s education savings account.
Gregory’s story is a glimpse at the unlimited potential of ESAs. Although these flexible savings accounts have existed only for a short time, the stories of children served— and saved— by ESAs are growing by the dozens.
Here’s how they work: State funding otherwise earmarked for a child’s K-12 education is deposited into an account controlled by parents and supervised by the government. These funds may be spent on a variety of educational services, including but not limited to private school tuition, tutoring, and online programs. Unused ESA money is carried over from year to year. Five states now have this innovative program, and ESA legislation has been introduced or is pending in many others.
Florida’s ESA program, known as the Gardiner Scholarship program, serves more than 7,000 students.
Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee each restrict ESA eligibility to students with learning disabilities or special needs. Nevada’s ESA, in contrast, offers near universal eligibility. The program is available to all students enrolled in a district or charter school within the previous 100 school days.
ESAs are the fulfillment of educational opportunity. Unlike vouchers or tax credit scholarships, which can be used only for private school tuition, ESA funds are spent on multiple educational services. With an ESA, parents are not limited by the selection of nearby brick-and-mortar schools. Instead, parents have the freedom to use education tax dollars to customize the best learning environment for their child.
With one education savings account, a child could enroll in an online Russian language course, sign up for individualized Algebra tutoring with a local instructor, or purchase necessary textbooks— all while saving the leftover money to eventually spend on college tuition.
In this sense, ESAs are about much more than school choice. They are about educational choice.
It’s little wonder the concept of ESAs enjoys robust support. A 2016 national survey of registered voters conducted by Glover Park Group showed that after being provided with a brief description of ESAs, 59 percent of respondents viewed the program favorably. And on a scale of 1-10, where 10 indicates “completely agree,” 68 percent of respondents fell between a 7 and 10 when asked if “parents should be able to customize education options according to the needs of their child.”
Similarly, a 2015 national survey conducted by Braun Research found 62 percent of respondents support ESAs, compared with 28 percent who oppose the concept. This support transcended all surveyed demographics, with the most support coming from young-adults, low-income earners, and school parents.
A well-designed ESA program in Pennsylvania would use existing education funding to provide more educational options for families in need. School choice is popular in the commonwealth, with upwards of 130,000 charter students and 45,000 tax credit scholarship recipients.
But demand exceeds supply for affordable, high-quality educational options. Thousands of Pennsylvania students are stranded on waitlists for charter schools. Tax credit scholarships are limited by the caps on business donations.
ESAs are the next step Pennsylvania students and families deserve.
For more information on ESAs visit www.commonwealthfoundation.org/esa.
James Paul is a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.