Another View -- Timothy Benson: Education accounts could make dreams a realityBy TIMOTHY BENSON
December 17. 2017 8:37PM
Heather McCarthy is a 13-year-old from Virginia who says she has been physically assaulted at her school three times in the past two years and is the constant target of abuse from her peers. Obviously, she no longer feels safe at her school, and her mother feels likewise.
“It’s the school’s responsibility to promise me that my child is safe when I drop her off at school and I don’t feel that way,” she told a local TV station. Her solution? “We’re moving … I put my home up for sale, so we can get out of this county. We are praying for a Christmas miracle. I will do whatever it takes to get her out of this county.”
In a world without school choice, these are the drastic measures that have to be taken if, for whatever reason, your neighborhood public school and your children just don’t fit, and you don’t have the means to send them to a private alternative. You literally have to pick up stakes and move. This is saddening, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
The push behind the school choice movement is very easy to understand: School choice proponents believe all parents should have the chance to send their children to the school of their preference. Roughly 10 percent of U.S. students are fortunate enough to have the family means to be educated outside of their neighborhood public school. For them, that opportunity has already been realized. However, many more parents, including nearly half the parents in New Hampshire (if you believe the polling), would prefer to have their children privately educated but lack the means to do so.
This is where education savings accounts (ESAs) come in. ESA programs ensure regular folks have the same options available to them as wealthier families, and whether or not New Hampshire is going to have ESAs will come down to a vote in the state’s House of Representatives in January. (The bill in question originated in and passed the Senate back in April.)
Under the legislation set to be voted on in January, ESAs would be available to parents of public school children whose income is below 300 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four. Parents enrolling in the program would receive a debit card loaded with their ESA funds, which they could use to pay for tuition and fees at private, parochial, or other public schools, and could also be used to pay for textbooks, tutoring services, computers, online courses, transportation fees, and educational therapies, as well as covering the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT and ACT.
Funding for each ESA would equal 95 percent of New Hampshire’s per-pupil adequate education grant amount, except for the kindergarten year, in which funding would be set at 50 percent. If there are any funds leftover at the end of the school year, they could be carried over to the next school year and each year of the child’s eligibility thereafter. ESA funds would also be available to help pay for tuition at postsecondary schools or used to fund the federal 530 Coverdell Education Savings Account college savings plan.
In the results of an EdChoice poll conducted earlier in 2017, 46 percent of New Hampshire voters said they would prefer to send their child to a private school if the choice were available to them and tuition were no obstacle. The survey also found 71 percent of parents with school-aged children are in favor of ESAs, while 63 percent of respondents with a household income under $40,000 also support the concept. Clearly, the desire for school choice in New Hampshire is there.
“This (ESA bill) is pushing the boundaries and allowing New Hampshire to be a gold standard for the rest of the country to follow,” said Gov. Chris Sununu. He is not wrong. No state would have an ESA program as expansive as New Hampshire’s right off the bat. Thousands of kids could find themselves in a school more tailored to their unique needs.
School choice proponents are dedicated to the simple proposition that poor families from communities like Manchester should have the same right to send their children to the school of their dreams as the wealthy ones in Hampton Falls do. ESAs would provide the means to make those dreams a reality.
Timothy Benson is a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Arlington, Ill.