Report: Wisconsin Should Embrace Education Savings Accounts

(Photo: Pexels, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pexels, Creative Commons)

A new report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty has examined the use of education savings accounts throughout the United States and considers the issues lawmakers will face when deciding whether to move toward greater use of ESAs.

The report, “Education Savings Accounts - a Primer for 21st Century Education Policy,” discusses the importance of education savings accounts (ESAs), saying they offer families more autonomy when it comes to deciding what kind of education their child will receive.

While the money could come from a government grant, it may also come in the form of a tax credit or tax sheltered deposit.  The funds can then be used by parents for a number of items and services including private school tuition, textbooks, or tutoring.  In the event that these accounts are allowed to “roll over,” they can be used for future educational purposes such as helping to pay for post-secondary education like college or technical school.

The authors maintain that while ESAs can either be a vehicle by which education is delivered or a supplement to traditional public education, their purpose is to fund students instead of schools.  They continue to argue that parents know what is best for their children, and therefore, it should be left to the parents to make educational decisions for their child.

The report discusses the use of ESAs in each state, taking lessons learned for the state of Wisconsin to consider in their decision to move toward their use.  The authors state that each student should receive their per-pupil funding on an individual basis to use as they see fit, which is similar to the program currently in use in Nevada.

They add that an incremental approach might be beneficial to the state because it would allow them to move by trial and error.  As such, they suggest making ESAs available to special needs students, gifted students, and those within the state foster care system, who they say are most in need of the individualized education ESAs can offer.

The authors recommend that ESAs should be able to be “spent” at public schools as well as at charter and private schools.  For example, Louisiana’s Supplemental Choice Academy allows students from low performing or failing schools to take public dollars and enroll in college courses, Advanced Placement classes, STEM education classes, industry-specific certifications, virtual schools, private tutors, or online education providers.

The report goes on to discuss the issue of transportation, as Wisconsin state law requires education providers to offer transport to their students.  They say that because of that, an ESA could be used to cover the cost of transportation.  If a parent is driving their child, they say receipts would need to be kept and mileage recorded.

“ESAs are not only the future of education; they are the present.  They effectively do what school choice and voucher proponents aspire to: children are funded instead of institutions and funding follows students wherever they choose to go. Today, more than 835,000 students across the country are eligible for ESAs in Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee—and there are millions more who stand to benefit from the customized education ESAs allow.  ESAs foster competition among public, private, and alternative educational institutions. This raises overall quality and increases the different ways that children’s specific educational needs and preferences can be met. It is now more important than ever that we do all we can to improve upon the status quo.”