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Commentary: Enacting ESA, Opening up TCLISSP, Would Help Kansas Families Deal with Pandemic

Legislation in the Kansas House of Representatives would establish the Student Empowerment Program, an education savings account (ESA) program for low-income and at-risk Kansas children. The program would also be open to Kansas children whose public schools have not been open for in-person instruction for either “120 consecutive school term hours within the current or immediately preceding school year or 180 total school term hours within one calendar year, whichever occurs first, or through hybrid model of instruction for a period of 240 total school term hours within the current or immediately preceding school year or one calendar year, whichever occurs first.”

With an ESA, state education funds allocated for a child are placed in a parent-controlled savings account. Parents then use a state-provided debit card to access the funds to pay for the resources chosen for their child’s unique educational program. Under the proposed program, ESAs could be used to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, as well as textbooks, tutoring services, educational therapies, and to offset transportation costs. The ESAs could also be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT or ACT.

Another bill in the Kansas House would expand eligibility for the state’s Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program (TCLISSP)—a tax-credit scholarship program enacted in 2014. Currently, TCLISSP is only open to students to low-income families (incomes below 100 percent of the level needed to qualify for the federal free lunch program) in the state’s 100 lowest-performing public schools. As such, only 632 students are making use of the program.

The bill would open the program up to students all across Kansas, not children just in the 100 worst schools, so long as they qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program. The program’s budget cap would remain at $10 million.

Copious empirical research on school choice programs such as ESAs and tax-credit scholarships finds they offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances, and that these programs improve academic performance and attainment and deliver a quality education at lower cost than traditional public schools. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices.

Research also shows students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.

It is probably for these reasons, and also because teacher unions have repeatedly played politics with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic in direct conflict with students’ best interests, that ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. Polling done by EdChoice released in December 2020 found 81 percent support for ESAs among the general public and 86 percent among current school parents, the highest level of support the program has received in the organization’s eight years of polling on the issue. This represents a 4-percentage point increase over 2019. These findings are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s seventh-annual National School Choice Poll, released in January 2021, which saw 78 percent support for ESA programs.

The goal of public education in the Sunflower State today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school. There has not been a time when providing these opportunities has been more urgent and more needed than right now. Legislators should recognize that and allow families as many options as possible to get their children the education they need and deserve. Establishing an ESA and expanding TCLISSP would be a great start.

 

For more information on education savings accounts and school choice, visit us here.

Tim Benson
Tim Benson joined The Heartland Institute in September 2015 as a policy analyst in the Government Relations Department.

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