Empowerment Scholarship Accounts serving Arizona well

Guest Opinion//October 15, 2015

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts serving Arizona well

Guest Opinion//October 15, 2015

Alexa Bloom has a master’s degree in special education instruction, so she knew her son, Julian, was going to need a flexible approach to learning. When Julian was just 18 months old, doctors diagnosed him with autism and a severe sensory and auditory processing disorder. “He would need to be in the maximum restrictive environment in a traditional school,” Alexa says.

But that’s not what she wanted for him. Now that Julian is entering second grade, Alexa is using an education savings account (ESA) to pay for personal tutors, educational iPad applications to use alongside their curriculum, and art and music specialists to help Julian.

“I’m so excited about it. Months before we got the card I was planning what curriculum I was going to teach,” Alexa says. “Education savings accounts are something that Arizona is getting right when it comes to education.”

Just as a child needs a pediatrician, dentist, and in some cases, even a physical therapist for their health, so they also may need a tutor, educational therapist, and an online class for their education. Moreover, new learning experiences require flexible options to pay for these services.

Jonathan Butcher

In 2013, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice conducted the first study of Arizona families’ purchases with Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. The study found approximately 34.5 percent of Empowerment Scholarship Account recipients use their funds for multiple learning experiences. This means that not all parents using an education savings account for their child are just looking for a new school. Some want to educate their child at home with a combination of personal tutors or online lessons. While one student may succeed with a certain textbook, another needs a different set of materials.

The key is that with Arizona’s accounts, parents can make these decisions—and they are doing so.

In forthcoming research from the Freidman Foundation for Educational Choice, we looked at education savings account data from the Arizona Department of Education from the last couple years and found that while 83 percent of Empowerment Scholarship Account money spent was used for private school tuition, parents still spent money on tutoring (7 percent of all money expended) and educational therapy (5 percent of all expenses), among other uses.

In fact, 28 percent of accountholders spent their funds on multiple educational products and services, similar to the findings from the 2013 study.

Since 2013, much has changed. More students are eligible for education savings accounts in Arizona, including kindergarten students with special needs or assigned to failing schools and students living on Native American reservations. The results in our upcoming paper demonstrate that even with a larger number and all types of students observed over a different time period, a similar percentage of students still use the accounts for multiple options.

Lindsey Burke

In addition, the data allow policymakers to see what is happening with taxpayer money directed to a child’s education. Instead of Byzantine school district budget spreadsheets based on complicated projections of student enrollment, ESA data provide a dollar-for-dollar report on how parents are educating their children using an account. Reports using data such as these will help prevent fraud and provide a transparent way to lawmakers and taxpayers to monitor the accounts.

Customization continues to play a major part in the story of savings account use among families, with nearly 30 percent of the 1,416 families in our study using their accounts for multiple purposes. Even though most families are using the accounts in part to pay for private school tuition, the findings contained in our dataset reveal that tuition is not the only thing parents are using their child’s account to afford. Education savings accounts are functionally different from private school scholarship programs.

Moreover, the findings suggest that ESAs do not become vouchers over time. Families take advantage of the flexibility provided through the unique structure of ESAs to access a variety of learning opportunities.

-Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and Lindsey Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy in the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.