Give parents flexibility in use of education funding – especially now

Written by Christine Cooke

August 26, 2020

Despite recent rumblings that Utah legislators would offer tax credits to parents whose children are taught at home, the policy was not pursued during last week’s special session.

However, to offer funding flexibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Utah State Legislature passed a bill during the session that offers districts frequent snapshots of average daily membership to better match funding with fluctuating enrollment, allow charter schools to prioritize student enrollment in ways that are responsive to parent choices, and increase flexibility for federal funding.

Still, the policy question remains: Should Utah allow funds to follow the student rather than the school?

With parent demand for school options growing rapidly and student needs becoming clearer, the answer is yes.

Direct education choice for parents not only helps achieve student success, it can relieve the political pressure of trying to find “the right answer” for everyone in a district or state – an impossible task from the outset.

Utah schools are reopening now, and a recent poll shows that parents across the state have had strong opinions about it – for instance, at the time of the survey 54% parents said that they intended to send their children back to school, 23% planned to do school remotely, 9% intended to homeschool their children, and 14% said they were unsure. Parents have either decided (or may still be deciding as the weeks wear on) whether to choose public school with required masks, continue school at home subject to online offerings, or pay out-of-pocket (on top of taxes) for private school or homeschool.

No matter which option parents prefer, it makes sense to let funds follow students through education savings accounts, a policy that gives public education funding to families rather than schools in order to buy educational services, curricula, tutors, therapies, in-home teachers, and more.

In a world where nobody can predict how even this fall 2020 semester will pan out (some universities are already closing just two weeks in), options today are a protection against chaos tomorrow.

Education savings accounts or similar policies have been or are being sought for this reason in several other states, including South Carolina, Washington, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Oregon. And where such funding policies already exist (like Arizona), there is a dramatic uptick in families enrolling for the education savings accounts – last summer 400 Arizona families enrolled in the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, while this summer 1,200 families have already done so.

Likewise, 18 think tanks across the country called on the federal government to free up federal funds to follow the child so that families can use the money to help pay for schooling expenses.

There is a growing sentiment that options for parents – not political battles between policymakers – is our best response to uncertainty, as well as student needs.

Utah has already started to employ the power of education choice in key state policies. For years now, Utah has offered private school vouchers to parents of students with special needs – and as of this year, Utah allows them to access education savings accounts to expand their options beyond just private schools. However, no similar statewide program (although some private vendors offer something like this) is available to any other students currently, no matter their need.

Likewise, in recent years policy changes have allowed families to use 529 plans (tax-advantaged savings accounts for higher education costs, sponsored by states according to the IRS laws) for K-12 tuition expenses at public, private or religious schools.

The point is, policymakers have increased flexibility in funding before, and it’s time for Utah to consider it again. It’s making less sense all the time for Utah to ignore expansion of flexible funding that is already offered but in limited ways.

Education funding exists expressly for student learning – however that may be accomplished. And uncertainty due to the pandemic and the growing diversity of student needs are not going away anytime soon.

When families are empowered to choose their education, there is improved civic buy-in for education policy decisions and better opportunities for Utah students. For that reason, a program to offer parents flexible education funding for their children is a policy that ought to be considered in the 2021 general legislative session.

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