The PA House and Senate Education Committees will hold a joint public hearing on Wednesday, May 24 at 9:00 am regarding Education Savings Accounts or ESAs.
Proponents of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), such as The American Federation for Children (founded by Betsy DeVos), argue that voucher programs empower parents by giving them more choice, provide students with a more customized experience, and improve education by encouraging competition between schools. Sounds good on the surface, but there are many holes in these arguments, the main one being that ESAs leave the accountability piece off the table. Accountability in terms of quality of education and appropriate use of funds is sketchy at best in these types of alternative education scenarios. Critics of ESAs call them “Betsy DeVos vouchers on steroids”, claiming that the term ESA is simply a rebranding of the school voucher program. Many worry that, like traditional school vouchers, ESAs will improperly funnel tax payer dollars into religious institutions and divert money from already struggling public schools.
Currently there are four states (Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee) which have some version of Education Savings Accounts. Here’s how they work: States issue to participating parents what is called a restricted-use debit card with a defined grant amount loaded onto the card. States decide who is eligible for the grant. Arizona offers them to various students, such as those in foster care. In Florida, only students with disabilities are eligible. States choose whether the full grant amount is added up front or periodically throughout the year. Parents can spend the funds on state-approved “vendors”. The money can also be used for home school supplies, tutoring, or private/religious school tuition. The value of the grant is determined by the individual state. In Arizona, for example, the amount received is 90% of what the state would have paid for the child to attend a charter school. In Mississippi, parents receive $6500, with the amount adjusted yearly based on changes in baseline per-pupil spending statewide. States can decide how the ESAs are managed and are permitted to contract with private, for-profit financial services to manage the accounts. Here again, with this kind of outsourcing, questions of accountability and transparency arise. What happens to any unspent funds you may ask? That decision is also left to the states. In Arizona, unused funds get deposited into college savings accounts. In Mississippi on the other hand, upon high school graduation, any money left on the debit card goes back to the state.
So how can we measure whether students making use of ESAs are receiving a quality education? States (are you sensing a theme here?) can use some sort of assessment tool, perhaps the same one given to public school students in the state. But many private providers argue that these assessments limit the flexibility of their curriculum and choose alternative assessments. If schools take the latter route, there is no way to objectively compare student performance across educational settings. Other states, like Arizona and Mississippi, have no assessment requirements at all. What if the provider doesn’t measure up? States can impose penalties on those schools by not allowing them to receive the ESA funds, but there are no current laws governing ESAs which tie performance to funding.
Click here to read one educator’s perspective on school vouchers.
Below is a list of questions on the subject compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures:
Key Questions for Legislators Considering Education Savings Accounts
1. How will eligible students be defined? How many students will qualify for the program? What is the current capacity of private schools statewide and in areas with the highest concentration of eligible students?
2. How does your state measure private school quality? Are there accreditation standards? Will participating schools be required to meet additional quality standards?
3. How does your state regulate assessments in private schools? Will participating schools be required to administer state assessments? Will they have the ability to offer alternative assessments? If so, who will pay for it? If not, how will the state track the program’s academic effectiveness?
4. In what ways, if any, will your state evaluate the performance of participating education providers? Will there be any consequences for those not meeting performance expectations?
5. How will your state manage parent accounts and verify parent transactions? Will a state agency manage the accounts or will the state contract with private financial institutions?
Click on the following link if you are interested in attending the hearing in Harrisburg.
posted by Amy Levengood