Education Savings Accounts Fail in Mississippi, Alive in Florida

“If my son had access to (an education savings account) earlier in his school career, he could have had access to online courses and consistent speech therapy that would have likely helped him reach his educational goals. Let’s face it. Kids learn differently. Maybe a different approach to education could help other children who learn differently, like my son.”

                                                                           -Camey, Olive Branch, Mississippi

Mississippi parents, like Camey, believe a child with special needs should have the opportunity to receive an education that best fits his or her unique learning needs, inside or outside of a brick-and-mortar schoolhouse. That is just one reason why parents across Mississippi visited Jackson to advocate for an education savings account (ESA) program that would have allowed greater choices and flexibility for their children.

Sadly, those Mississippi families will have to wait for such choices. The Equal Opportunity for Special Needs Act, an ESA bill, was narrowly defeated in the Mississippi House of Representatives this past legislative session. The bill, similar to Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program, would have allowed parents to withdraw their children from public school and receive a debit card from the state worth $6,000 a year to spend on such approved educational expenses as tuition, therapy, tutoring, online courses, and more.

The answer to “Why are states interested in pursuing ESAs?” is clear. One, they help the children who don’t just want a more customized education, but need it. Two, they work, as evidenced by the nation’s first and only ESA program. But it likely won’t be the only one for long.

Seven states introduced legislation similar to Arizona’s ESA program in 2014. Notably, Mississippi’s and Florida’s made significant progress. Although the outcome was unfavorable in Mississippi,

Florida still has ESA bills moving in the House and Senate.

Florida’s proposed ESA program is noteworthy, given the state’s history serving students with disabilities.


Why is Florida pursuing education savings accounts?

Since 1999, Florida has had voucher program specifically designed to serve students with special needs. Today more than 27,000 students are participating in the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. But for all its success, Florida policymakers still saw the need to introduce an ESA during the 2014 legislative session. Why?

Many of Florida’s McKay participants have needs beyond the traditional public or private classroom setting. Robyn Rennick, of the McKay Coalition of Schools, made that point during testimony in support of ESAs before the Florida House Education Appropriations committee. By allowing parents to shop for services outside the classroom, ESAs would help Florida students with special needs in ways traditional vouchers or scholarships could not.

Indeed, using data from the Arizona Department of Education, Lindsey Burke found that 34.5 percent of Arizona parents using their state’s ESAs purchased multiple educational services to accommodate their children’s’ diverse needs. In their current form, vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, although valuable and effective for families, do not allow such customization.


What could momentum for ESAs in Florida and across the country mean for traditional private school choice?

In 1955, Milton Friedman envisioned a new way of funding K–12 education: Allow the government to fund students, rather than fund and run school systems. To do that he proposed a school voucher concept that would allow parents to direct their child’s education dollars to the schools of their choice.  Friedman believed an education system based on choice, rather than government assignment, would be more successful in meeting children’s diverse needs. Today the effects of these limited programs are known, and have been found effective.

“Vouchers are not an end in themselves,” Friedman wrote. The purpose, he said, was to encourage innovation and new educational models, which only entrepreneurs—not government—could drive. And to achieve that thriving educational marketplace, it is essential no conditions be attached to the acceptance of vouchers that interfere with the ability of entrepreneurs to innovate. ESAs can do exactly that.

Accountability provisions in Arizona’s ESA programs are ideal. Parents are not required to impose standardized tests on their children. Rather, parents must see that their children receive an education in key subject areas. And, to obtain their quarterly distribution of funds, parents must submit their receipts to the appropriate government department to prove their funds have been used on allowed educational services. Those accountability standards make sure the money is spent appropriately while also not restricting or discouraging the educational marketplace from providing diverse options for students.

“Nobody spends somebody else’s money as wisely as he spends his own,” Friedman said. ESAs leverage that maxim by allowing parents to save unused funds for their children’s future K–12 and college educational expenses. Conveniently, by making parents more cost-conscious of their children’s schooling services, education providers will be encouraged to offer students higher quality services at the lowest possible cost.

It is encouraging to see states take considerable steps toward the passage of ESA programs; yet for all this movement, Arizona remains the only state leading “The Way of the Future” with ESAs. If this year’s legislative activity is an indicator of things to come, Arizona may not be alone for long.