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The Unintended Consequences of ESAs – Inflated Costs for All, Fewer Choices for All

This post is the first of a five-part series. NOTE: Although we do not encourage homeschoolers to use the public school for special needs assistance, we realize that some may due to expense. We have learned that a great many homeschoolers with children with special needs avoid the government and seek help privately. This article is exploring issues related to evaluating public school services and ESAs as evidenced by ESA regulation in other states. 

What if I told you that I heard the government’s got a great deal for you? You’ll probably want to know a few details. They’re going to take everybody’s tax money, put in in a pot, then hand some money back to you so that you can spend it on your child’s education. Everybody likes getting money, and I think you’ll find this hard to resist, but you might ask yourself what the “catch” might be. There will be many, but for now, just think about that “free” money!

Some people call this type of “free money” for school an “Education Savings or Scholarship Account,” or “ESA” for short. Up to this point, you have probably been budgeting carefully to afford a yearly curriculum for your child, maybe even making sacrifices to buy textbooks, so you might be willing to convince yourself that taking this ESA funds is going to be great for your family and your child’s education. On the other hand, many of us have had negative experiences with education whenever the government bureaucracy has gotten involved. We might think twice. But if ESA funds are made available to us, many homeschoolers are going to try and convince ourselves that this is a good thing.

  1. We’re going to start telling ourselves that it’s “free money.”
  2. We’re going to tell ourselves that the government is doing this to help us pay for the costs of a good education.
  3. We’re going to tell ourselves that this helps low-income families afford a good education.
  4. We’re going to tell ourselves that we’ll be able to maintain most of our freedom and choice.
  5. We’re going to tell ourselves that ESAs won’t affect us if we don’t take them.
  6. We’re going to tell ourselves that we’ll be able to maintain our current superior education results.

But we’d be lying to ourselves. Let’s think about these lies, one by one.

  1. Is it free money?

No. Your Dad was right, there’s “no such thing as a free lunch.” The ESA funds come from somewhere, at a cost to someone, even if that cost is to be a future burden placed on our children. Whatever small benefit you might possibly see in and ESA, remember “Better is a dry morsel, and quietness therewith, than a house full of sacrifices with strife.” Proverbs 17:1, KJV. Whether or not you are a religious person, this saying is a truism that so many people can relate to. It is far better to maintain your independence and have peace, even if it means financial sacrifice.

If you take ESA funds, your child could lose his or her right to a free public education (at least for the year that you took ESA funds). Parents of special needs children who are frustrated with the services their child is receiving have multiple avenues to continue to work with the public school system to obtain help for their child.[1] The amount of money that an ESA fund provides could be nowhere near the average cost of educating a special needs child (somewhere over $16,000 per year, on average, which is more than $9000 over what a non-special-needs child costs in public schools).[2] Homeschooling can be a great option, but it is not the best choice for every student. ESA funds are not going to be enough to cover all the therapies and tutoring that the child could need. Just getting a proper diagnosis could eat up the entire ESA, easily costing $5000 or more.[3]

Children who have a serious disability can already have the full cost of private school paid for through an IEP with their public school. There is no need to implement ESA funds to cover this situation. It is low-income parents, likely to be uninformed of their child’s educational rights, who may take the offer to accept ESA funds that do not come close to covering what their child could get through an IEP. Arizona’s ESA program has seen special needs students from schools with a high percentage of “free or reduced lunch” students receive, on average, much less ESA funds than do students from wealthier areas.[4] The same study also found that students who left higher performing schools were receiving much more money than those who left low-performing schools. For example, in Arizona, the average student from Gilbert Unified, an A performing school with over 27% of students on free or reduced lunch, received $18,019. The average student from Window Rock Unified, a D performing school with over 77% of students on free or reduced lunch, received just $5,105.

These numbers are very concerning. It is very concerning that an uninformed parent could impulsively remove a child from public school, take a relatively low amount of ESA funds, obtain a proper diagnosis (which eats up most of the ESA), then realize that addressing the learning disability properly is beyond what they can do on their own. A parent could have had every good intention, yet still, they would be unable to afford the cost of therapy and tutoring and unable to help their child on their own. They would be unable to place their child back in public school (at least for that school year). It could be detrimental to a special needs child in this situation. And, although the child’s situation could have been worsened by many years of public school, the parent would be blamed for the child’s lack of academic achievement. Even if a child spent 9 years in public education and only one year in homeschool, the parent is the one who is left “holding the bag.” 

What about free money for private school? Private school tuition is high (especially so for a special needs child). A poor or average family who cannot afford private school will still be unable to afford private school. A wealthy family who can already afford private school tuition will get a state-funded discount. This is exactly what has happened in Arizona – wealthy families have benefitted the most from their ESA program. “Two years after state lawmakers granted children from poor-performing schools the right to attend private schools at taxpayer expense, most children using the program are leaving high-performing public schools in wealthy districts.”[5] Arizona House Minority Leader Eric Meyer said about Arizona’s ESA program, “It essentially gives the wealthy a discount at a private school.”[6]

Does it sound like “free money” when your tax dollars are going to go to help wealthy families pay for private school? And, because these students are leaving high-performing public schools, ESA funds are, in effect, penalizing already high-performing schools.[7] That’s not “cost-free” to our society! If we must have public schools, we want them to be good. As Arizona has debated, expanding their ESA program to include all students in public school, Arizona House Minority Leader Eric Meyer has said that it “would drain huge amounts of money from public schools, leaving behind children at poor-performing schools.”[8]

A reasonable option for some situations is for a parent to work with the public school to include some home-based education as part of the child’s IEP, placing the child in school for tutoring and lessons perhaps three out of five days per week, with the remaining two days home-based. It is very important to understand that this situation would continue to be public school, and should not be confused with homeschooling, but again, homeschooling is not the best option for every student.

For those who want to homeschool, it is tempting to think that the government should help us. Most of us grew up with the idea that everyone is entitled to “free” school, and it’s difficult to understand the problems with this idea. It’s difficult to understand why, for most of us, the government’s help is really no help at all.

To be continued.

[1] http://www.doe.in.gov/specialed/special-education-due-process

[2] http://www.nea.org/home/19029.htm

[3] http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/testing-a-child-for-learning-disabilities/

[4] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/education/2016/02/23/state-money-helping-wealthier-arizona-kids-go-private-schools/80303730/?from=global&sessionKey=&autologin=

[5] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/education/2016/02/23/state-money-helping-wealthier-arizona-kids-go-private-schools/80303730/

[6] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/education/2016/02/23/state-money-helping-wealthier-arizona-kids-go-private-schools/80303730/?from=global&sessionKey=&autologin=

[7] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/education/2016/02/23/state-money-helping-wealthier-arizona-kids-go-private-schools/80303730/?from=global&sessionKey=&autologin=

[8] Id.

Lisa Yankey is a happy homeschooling mom of three, but she never expected to homeschool. Teaching runs in her blood – she is a former public school teacher, and her mother, father, and brother are all former public school teachers. During her childhood and as a teacher herself, she recognized many issues in public school. She went to law school at night in a long-term plan to help improve public schools. She used to believe that every child could receive a good and appropriate education from public school. She realized the error of this belief when she watched her own child suffering in public school. She began homeschooling shortly after her oldest child had a disastrous start to public school first grade, and she has never looked back.

She kept her career as a part-time attorney and works for herself as a sole practitioner, with a practice area in immigration law. She is known particularly for her representation of victims of domestic abuse. She continues teaching adults as a speaker on immigration law at continuing legal education events for fellow lawyers. Lisa resides in Noblesville, Indiana (Hamilton County). with her husband, three children, two dogs, and a cat.