As the success of education choice expansion becomes more clear, additional states are stepping up to offer families more options.
Joined by Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced this week his plan to expand Education Savings Accounts in the Volunteer State.
Under the Governor's plan, each participating student would have access to $7,000 to be used for education expenses, including private school or home school during the 2024-25 year.
At first, the expansion would be limited and students would have to meet income requirements. But starting in the 2025-26 school year, "the program would be open to students regardless of income. Income and enrollment history would be used to prioritize students if demand exceeds capacity."
Governor Lee's office put out this outstanding video to highlight the current success of Tennessee's program, and the need for more expansion.
Universal education choice is becoming more common. In fact, nine states offer the option to families. As we previously laid out, each state has a different model.
As lawmakers in Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming consider numerous proposals to bring more education choice to their states, Mountain States Policy Center thought it might be helpful to have a guide of the elements that will make the program successful.
As we recommended in our study Education Choice Improves Outcomes, policymakers should always focus the policy they are proposing on a simple question: does the policy allow those closest to the child the ability to make the decision?
Here are the key elements to a successful education choice plan:
An education savings account should always contain maximum flexibility, to be used on tutoring, private school tuition, homeschooling, speech or occupational therapy, technology, and that which can help improve a child’s educational experience.
Avoid class warfare
The socioeconomic background of children shouldn’t matter – investments should be focused on educating all students. Policies should avoid separating children into economic classes. If policymakers ultimately decide to place income limits on the program, it should be indexed to inflation and should also consider the size of the family. Any limits should also have a sunset and require review by future lawmakers.
Avoid enrollment caps
Placing enrollment caps on any education choice program is unfair and unwise. Policymakers should avoid setting arbitrary limits. Again, if lawmakers initially choose to adopt enrollment caps, they should add a sunsetting provision to allow more students to participate in the future.
Avoid prior year school requirement
All students should qualify to participate in an education choice program – whether they’ve lived in a state for six months or six years. Students who currently don’t use the public school system should also qualify, as their families pay into public education just the same.
Parents should always be required to spend the money on educational expenses and in accordance with rules and requirements set forth by the state. Most states require parents to sign a contract pledging to do so.
Oversight and accountability
The state should always have oversight and accountability of the program to ensure dollars are being spent wisely. An oversight board can be created and the state Attorney General and/or Treasurer can be tasked with performing random audits. Any funds used inappropriately should be immediately revoked.
Funds can roll over
An education choice program that includes education savings accounts should always allow funds to roll over and gain interest. Doing so can save resources for taxpayers and families.
Can be used for college
Policymakers should allow for any unused funds in an education savings account to be spent on in-state college tuition. This can lower the burden for families and also provide incentive to students to get a college degree locally. Furthermore, it can expand the goal of getting more students to stay and work locally.
Extra help for special needs children
Policymakers should consider either having a supplemental, separate ESA for special needs children, or allow extra funding in a broad ESA for special needs kids who may need extra assistance.
No education choice option should ever require a school or parent who takes the funds to forfeit their religious beliefs. This is a violation of the Constitution and recent Supreme Court rulings.