May 21 2014

This Memorial Day Thank a Vet with an ESA

Vicki E. Alger

President Obama has vowed to fix the intolerable mismanagement of Phoenix Veterans Affairs Hospital, which resulted in dozens of deaths and reports of patients put secret waiting lists for care.  Thankfully Arizona is not waiting around to do the right thing for veterans and their families—and neither should any other state.

On April 23 Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed two bills into law making more children than ever eligible to participate in the state’s landmark education savings account (ESA) program, called the Empowerment Scholarship program enacted in 2011 (SB 1553 and Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 15-2401-04).

The first expands the definition of eligible student to include siblings of current or former ESA students as well as youngsters eligible to enroll in a preschool program for children with disabilities (HB 2139). The second expansion makes children whose parent or guardian was killed in the line of duty eligible for ESAs (HB 2150).

According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, there were nearly 15,400 Arizona preschool-age children receiving services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Department of Defense data also indicate that an estimated 110 children statewide have parents who were killed in the line of duty.

Arizona’s ESA is a model program for American Active Duty military parents and their nearly 900,000 school-age children (by my tally for children ages 3 to 18, p. 132).

More than half of all public schools with military dependent enrollments of 5 percent or more are not meeting basic academic achievement benchmarks (p. 4). Children from military families also have higher rates of disabilities (here and here) and move more frequently. The GAO confirmed in 2011 and 2012 that oversight and education services provided by the federal government needs improvement.  ESA programs could help.

Through Arizona’s program 90 percent of what the state would have spent to educate qualified students in public schools is instead deposited into an ESA (both the base amount and additional funding depending on a student’s disability). Parents must complete an application and sign an agreement not to enroll their children in public schools.

With those funds, parents can pay for a variety of education expenses, including private school tuition and fees, textbooks, tutors, online or home school curricula, standardized testing and college entrance exam fees, and college courses. Any unused funds can also be used for college expenses.

The original program was limited to special needs students but was expanded in 2012 (HB 2622) to include students in or assigned to schools graded ‘D’ or ‘F’ under the state accountability system, children of Active Duty military members, and children currently in or adopted from the state foster-care system.

In 2013 annual auditing and other accountability measures were added (HB 2458), and the program was capped at 0.5 percent of the combined public school enrollment through 2019, about 5,400 new ESAs annually. Yet the program was further expanded (SB 1363) to include eligible students entering kindergarten, and the state base funding was increased by $1,600 to $5,300.

An official analysis conducted in 2013 found that in its first year the ESA program served about 130 students and distributed $1.6 million, growing to 302 students and distributing approximately $5.2 million the following year in 2012. Research also shows that parents are using their ESA funds to tailor their education options to their children’s unique needs. Satisfaction levels among participating parents are stunning with 91 percent reporting being satisfied or very satisfied. The remaining 10 percent were somewhat satisfied, and no parent reported being neutral or dissatisfied.

And, because each ESA student receives just 90 percent of what the state would have spent to educate her or him in a public school, the savings of 5,000 students using ESAs is an estimated $12.3 million.

This March, Arizona’s ESA program achieved another milestone when the constitutionality of the program was upheld against a court challenge by the teachers and school boards unions that dragged on for three years.

The success of Arizona’s ESA program has inspired legislation to be introduced in several other states, including Florida, Iowa, Mississippi,  Missouri,  Montana, Oklahoma, and Utah.

Not only should lawmakers in other states consider implementing ESAs, the federal government should let veterans deposit their unused GI Bill education funds into ESAs as well. That way parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members could ensure their loved ones have the education that works best for them now—not years from now when they enter college.

 

 

 

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