According to their recently released Forward Agenda, Assembly Republicans want to explore the concept of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) under which taxpayer-funded grants would be given to parents and placed in these accounts to be used for education-related expenses, including private school tuition.
According to Molly Beck of the Wisconsin State Journal, similar savings accounts are used in five states — Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee. Most of these programs are a new phenomenon. Only the Arizona & Florida ESAs existed in the 2014-15 school year. Typically these programs have income and other eligibility restrictions for participation. Nevada is the only state that has implemented a program that allows any parent — regardless of income or a child’s disability — to use the accounts provided their child has attended a public school for at least 100 days.
The Nevada ESA program was enacted in 2015, however, the program was declared unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court over its funding mechanism, but not over its support for religious schools. It is expected that the Nevada program can be reworked to avoid the constitutional objection with regard to funding.
Both voucher and ESA programs provide eligible students with funding toward a private education. Vouchers generally provide funding for tuition at a religious or secular private school. ESAs are typically designed to fund a broader set of educational expenses.
Parents can use ESA money, for example, to pay for private school tuition and fees, books, online learning programs, private tutoring or education therapies, but not to attend non-resident public school districts. (In Wisconsin, this is covered by open enrollment programs.)
In addition, ESA programs also lay out which expenses are allowed and what to do with any unused funds. In some states, any leftover funds from the account can be saved for college or other higher education expenses or for a student to enroll in college courses.
The first voucher program began in 1990, and the first ESA program began more recently in 2011. While Wisconsin students receiving vouchers to attend participating private schools must take state assessments and will be included in the state’s report card system, it is unclear how the state’s accountability and report card systems would apply to students using ESAs.
State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), Chair of the Assembly Education Committee told the State Journal that he prefers Wisconsin’s voucher program:
“The system we have in place is the way we intend to go and I intend to stick to the path,” he said.
State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield, pictured) told the State Journal he likes the idea of the savings accounts because students from all backgrounds and income levels should be able to choose the best education for them but also said lawmakers must ensure money isn’t taken from public schools before drafting legislation to create the accounts.