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Commentary: K-5 ESA Would Be a Great First Step for North Dakota School Choice

Legislation in the North Dakota House of Representatives has been recently introduced that would establish an education savings account (ESA) program for all North Dakota children in grades K–5.

If passed, the ESAs would be available to parents of public school children to pay for tuition, curriculum, and fees at private and parochial schools. The funds could also be used to pay for textbooks, tutoring services, computers and other approved hardware, instructional materials, and educational therapies and services. The ESAs could also be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT or ACT.

ESAs would be funded at 75 percent of the rate public schools receive per-pupil under the state’s funding formula and the program would have a $5 million budget cap.

Copious empirical research on school choice programs such as ESAs 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 school a child attends should not be determined solely by his or her ZIP code. However, this is currently the case for most children in North Dakota. The proposed ESA program would be the perfect first step in bringing choice options to North Dakota families.

The goal of public education in the Roughrider 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.

 

For more information about 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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