Education Savings Accounts: Enabling Customized Learning

August 29, 2014 - 9:48 AM

An education option that better targets resources, empowers parents, and tailors a student’s learning experience specifically to his needs—while also enabling families to save for college? Sounds too good to be true, but it’s the reality for families in Arizona and Florida that have access to pioneering education savings accounts (ESAs).

In 2011, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the nation’s first education savings account program into law. Known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts in Arizona, ESAs are true to their name: They empower parents with the ability to fully customize their child’s education.

This year, Florida became the second state to enact an ESA program, which the Sunshine State calls Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSAs).

Eighteen-year-old Max Ashton is an ESA recipient in Arizona. Max is an exceedingly bright and ambitious young man. He was also born legally blind and has additional needs in school. This is why, when given the option to use an ESA in 2011, Max’s parents jumped at the chance. Marc Ashton, Max’s father, said of the decision:

A blind student in Arizona gets about $21,000 dollars per year to educate that student. We took 90 percent of that, paid for Max to get the best education in Arizona—the best education in Arizona—plus all his Braille, all his technology, and then there was still money left over—still money left over—to put toward his college [tuition]. And so he is going to be able to go on to Loyola Marymount University…and do extremely well, because we were able to save money even sending him to the best school in Arizona over what the state would normally pay for.

ESAs act like an “education debit card.” With an ESA, 90 percent of the state funding that would have been spent on their child in public school is placed into a restricted-use savings account for parents to use toward a variety of approved education services and products, including private school tuition, private tutoring, curricula, textbooks, individual public school courses, and education therapies. Parents can even roll over unused funds into a college savings account.

In its first year of operation, 34 percent of Arizona families chose to use their ESA funds toward multiple education options. This suggests that when parents are given the ability to customize their child’s education, many will take advantage of the opportunity, tailoring their child’s education to that child’s individual needs.

With this ability to customize, ESAs could be considered “School Choice 2.0”—the next generation of school choice. ESAs restore accountability in education by shifting responsibility in education decision-making back to providers who know the needs of the student best: the parents.

As Kathy Visser, mother of 10-year-old ESA recipient Jordan, explains:

I’m seeing children that are blossoming that were not learning in the traditional system, and to me that’s accountability. We need to look at ways to show that accountability. There is nobody that is going to be more accountable to that child than the parent.

The school choice movement is picking up steam across the country. As of 2014, 41 private school choice programs are operating in 24 states and the District of Columbia. Over 300,000 students are benefitting from school choice. As parents across America grow hungrier for customization in education, ESAs represent the way forward.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Heritage Foundation.