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Educational freedom for all

Momentum builds as Iowa and Utah enact universal education savings accounts

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds greets supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 24 before signing a bill that creates education savings accounts. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall

Educational freedom for all
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In 2011, education reformers launched National School Choice Week to highlight the importance of educational opportunity. Held in January each year, the week now boasts thousands of events across the country. Local groups have organized rallies, hosted fun fairs, and illuminated dozens of monuments to promote education options. But this year, governors in Iowa and Utah topped all that when they marked National School Choice Week by signing laws that will make education savings accounts available to every student in their states.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation on Jan. 24 that will soon allow all families to direct their child’s state per-pupil funding, around $7,600, through an education savings account (ESA). Days later, Gov. Spencer Cox signed the Utah Fits All Scholarship, offering similar accounts worth roughly $8,000. Iowa and Utah join Arizona and West Virginia, the first states to make ESAs universally available as of last year.

Education savings accounts are the most promising policy mechanism to date for recognizing parents' God-given responsibility to oversee their children’s education. ESAs allow parents to use funds to pay for traditional private school tuition, homeschooling, and “microschools,” as well as tutoring and other personalized learning environments. Plus, parents can combine these options to find the right components for their children’s needs when one size doesn’t fit all.

That mixing and matching is familiar to most college students, whose transcripts often show credits for a variety of educational options from multiple institutions. Education savings accounts make such flexibility available for the early educational years, where it arguably matters most as children need to attain the basic skills that form the foundation for all future learning.

The fact that these ESAs are universal—available to all families—further underscores the priority of parents in their children’s education. States began implementing partial ESAs in 2011, limiting participation to students with special needs or from low-income households. Participation in prior mechanisms for choice—such as vouchers and tax credits— had been similarly limited.

Momentum continues to build across the country. Analysts will be watching efforts to expand educational options in South Carolina, Indiana, and Oklahoma, among other states.

Providing educational opportunity first to these students made sense. Yet needs-based eligibility simply allows some families to opt out of schooling determinations that are based on the system, not the student. The reality is that students are, for the most part, still assigned to a school on the basis of their address. Universal ESAs allow all parents to let their child’s needs—not their zip code—determine where and by whom they’ll be educated.

While lawmakers in Iowa and Utah have just made ESAs a reality, numerous other state leaders pressed forward this January toward the goal of expanding educational options for their own citizens. Governors called for greater parental choice in education in their annual state addresses. About a dozen states have introduced legislation to create or expand education savings accounts or other choice options.

Leaders of the Florida House introduced universal ESA legislation as the first bill of their current session. Over the past two decades, the state has offered an increasingly robust set of educational choice options, but it has not yet offered choice to all families. Policymakers have high hopes that will change this year. In Texas, which has lagged in providing parental choice in education, Gov. Greg Abbott has also called for universal ESAs.

In Ohio, a trailblazing state for educational choice dating back to the mid-1990s, Gov. Mike DeWine introduced a state budget that would expand eligibility for existing educational scholarships. Households with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line, amounting to $111,000 for a family of four, would qualify for scholarships under the plan.

Momentum continues to build across the country. Analysts will be watching efforts to expand educational options in South Carolina, Indiana, and Oklahoma, among other states. National School Choice Week may have ended, but the chance for more families to gain expanded educational opportunities in 2023 is far from over.

Jennifer Marshall Patterson

Jennifer is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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