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As Wyoming advances education choice, it’s important to use accurate terms

The Joint Education Committee of the Wyoming legislature met this week to consider a series of proposals aimed at improving education outcomes.

The bill creates $3,000 per year ESA's for families who make less than 250% of the federal poverty level. The money could be used to support education services such as tutoring, private school tuition, textbooks or help to improve outcomes outside the classroom. Compared to previous proposals and laws in other states, the Wyoming plan is a modest step forward.

But it's important to point out that Education Savings Accounts are not "vouchers." It's inaccurate and misleading to interchange the terms.

Polling shows vouchers do not have the same amount of support as ESA's. The word "voucher" has a negative connotation, which explains why so many opponents keep saying "vouchers" or "ESA vouchers."

The problem is there's no such thing as an "ESA voucher" - in fact, ESA's are very different from vouchers. Even many lawmakers don't understand the difference.

For the sake of accuracy and public understanding, lawmakers and the media must use proper terms.

A voucher program would let parents use taxpayer dollars to pay for tuition at a private school approved by the state. Typically, the state writes a check to a school in the name of a student to cover tuition.

An Education Savings Account is much different. First, money is held in an account by the state - it is not given directly to schools. Second, an ESA allows parents to use a portion of state funding on a variety of education services. Yes, it can include private school tuition, but it can also include tutoring, special needs services, curriculum, mental health treatment and much more - so long as it is for an educational purpose.

In the end, ESA's are given directly to parents via a state fund, whereas vouchers are given to schools or a specific institution.

Wyoming lawmakers are also being told the proposal may violate the state constitution's Blaine Amendment, which says "no money of the state shall ever be given or appropriated to any sectarian or religious society or institution."

However, two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases have curtailed Blaine Amendment restrictions: Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020) and Carson v. Makin (2022).

The Espinoza decision held that government attempts to exclude religious schools from public scholarship or tax credits are subject to strict scrutiny, meaning lawmakers must prove they have a “compelling interest” in restricting the free exercise of religion of scholarship or tax credit recipients. The Carson majority held that “a neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause."

In other words, states cannot fall back on their Blaine Amendments to justify prohibitions on public funding of schools solely due to their religion. In addition, a state cannot discriminate against religious beneficiaries of public scholarships or tax credits by forbidding them from using those benefits at religious schools. As the Institute for Justice writes, “these obstacles to educational freedom are now largely a dead letter.”

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