Texas’ parental rights and education savings account (ESA) program bill has gained traction since it was introduced a few weeks ago. Early this week, it passed the state Senate education committee. Just last week at the Texas Capitol, Governor Greg Abbott led a Parent Empowerment Day to rally families and show his support for education freedom. Similar events featuring Governor Abbott are occurring across the Lone Star State throughout this spring.
If passed and signed into law, Senate Bill 8 would provide families with qualifying students up to $8,000 per student through an education savings account. Qualifying students could come from one of three categories: currently enrolled in public school, attended public school for at least 90% of the preceding school year, or enrolling in prekindergarten or kindergarten for the first time.
Critics—including some education reform advocates—have questioned the accountability and oversight measures included in ESA proposals. But existing and new ESA programs in other states include monitoring of spending and student performance to provide safeguards. For example, the ESA programs in Florida, Arkansas, Iowa, Tennessee, and West Virginia require annual testing for participating students who attend private schools. These safeguards ensure that families are utilizing funding according to its intended purpose and that the program is working effectively.
Texas’ ESA bill ensures financial and academic accountability in four different ways that address the worries of critics.
First, the program is established and monitored by the state comptroller. The comptroller handles approving “education-related expenses,” “certified educational assistance organizations,” and “education service providers and vendors of educational products” covered by the program. These providers and vendors could include private and public schools as well as tutors and therapists. Parents can only spend ESA funding on these approved areas with clear guidelines on what is allowed outlined by the bill. Some approved education-related expenses include tuition and fees, textbooks, transportation, and private tutoring services. While parents and students are the program beneficiaries and direct the funding to their ESA accounts, the comptroller pays the preapproved educational assistance organization, provider, or vendor directly. Families would be able to easily see their account balance and past activity online.
The online platform enables maximum financial accountability because, as EdChoice has pointed out, “the platforms only allow the purchase of eligible products and services.” They are also efficient because government staff would not have to spend time approving receipts or reimbursing parents. Additionally, the platforms would have the potential to provide parents with helpful reviews about these products and services. Over time, this would improve their quality. Good programs would allow the comptroller to approve innovative ways to educate students, while also preventing parents from misspending public funds.
Second, the bill includes a provision for random auditing of accounts and student eligibility by a private entity every two years.
Third, the comptroller will contract with a higher education provider to produce an annual report on the program to include measures, such as program participant satisfaction and the number of program participants who are college-ready, career-ready, or military-ready within one year after graduating from high school.
Lastly, students attending private schools using ESA funding will be required to take an annual national assessment, and their results must be shared with the educational assistance organization.
Similar educational choice programs in other states show how these programs ensure financial responsibility. The Arizona Auditor General found that for FY 2018 just 1% of Arizona’s ESA program funds were misspent. And the Texas bill provides significantly more safeguards than Arizona’s program previously had in place.
SB 8 demonstrates the truth that parents are the best suited to make decisions for their kids. Each child has different academic needs, and ESAs provide flexible spending to meet these diverse needs. At the same time, in four ways, it addresses the need for some oversight in the spending of public funds and tracking the efficacy of the program.