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Education Success Accounts FAQs

Key leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates will file 2023 legislation that will create Virginia Education Success Accounts (ESAs) for all Virginia K12 students. ESAs are accounts funded with approximately one-third of the State’s per pupil expenditure and can be used to pay for private school or home school. Here are some commonly asked ESA questions.

What is an ESA?

ESAs allow parents to apply for eligible students to receive one-third of State’s education funds into a personal, parent-controlled account. Parents are then empowered to customize an education experience that meets the individual needs of their child, using their account to pay for approved services like tuition, therapy, tutoring, textbooks, and more. 

Already successfully working in other states, ESAs are a powerful, proven innovation that creates one more critical pathway for Virginia students to have a customized education that equips them to reach their full education potential.

Who will be eligible for a Virginia ESA?

Virginia’s current legislation blends the approaches of other successful state ESA laws. In its current form, the bill will extend ESAs to students who are enrolled in a public elementary or secondary school in Virginia or are eligible or otherwise required to enroll in a kindergarten program in the state. 

Will ESAs impact homeschooling in Virginia?

The entry of ESAs onto the Virginia educational landscape will not affect the rights of parents and students using the existing options for homeschooling in any way. Homeschoolers will have the same freedoms and be unaffected by the ESA program.

Will ESAs create government interference or mandates for private schools?

No. First, there is no obligation for any school to participate in the program. Second, unlike a voucher program, the state transfers funds to an account in the name of the student and managed by the parent. The state does not directly pay any education vendors, including private or religious schools. Whether the parent spends ESA funds on private schooling or some other

form of education is up to them if it is an ESA-approved expenditure. This keeps government out of independent schools and personal education decisions.

Will ESAs create financial hardships for traditional public schools?

No. Public schools in states that have ESA programs have not been harmed. For each student participating in the ESA program, only the state portion of education funds follow the student. Federal and local funds are not touched, even though the school will no longer bear the cost of instructing the student. For example, local funds will still be available to cover fixed or overhead costs like buildings, and because the ESA student is no longer a cost to the school these retained local funds will be spread over fewer students.

Will ESAs cause a “mass exodus” from traditional public schools?

No. If parents are pleased with the outcomes of their local public school, they will have no need for an ESA. Many parents are content with the public school to which their student is assigned. 

The best predictor of the ESA’s impact on public school enrollment is to compare it to other programs. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program provides universal access to students whose family’s income is restricted to less than 300% of federal poverty guidelines. Started in 1990, it currently enrolls almost 29,000 students.  A Friedman Foundation-funded study projects that Virginia’s unrestricted program after 5 to 10 years will enroll about 4% of eligible students (~ 50,000) or approximately 1 student in a 25-student public school classroom.

Will ESAs leave traditional public schools with all the “difficult” students?

No. ESAs are specifically designed to benefit students who face medical, personal, or economic challenges. Often, these are the students that fall behind or are not well-served in traditional education environments.

How do you ensure that funds are spent on actual education expenses?

Virginia’s legislation applies lessons learned in other states with specific checks built-in to prevent intentional or unintentional misuse, such as contractually agreeing to use of an online portal for purchases and a requirement that the parent be bonded.  Parents will only be able to purchase approved items and services. This makes ESAs as—if not more—transparent than any other form of education spending.

Are ESAs too complicated for parents to use?

No. While there is a natural learning curve for everyone using something new, parents of all income levels routinely navigate financial decisions like housing costs, car loans, healthcare expenses and more. Consumer data shows that millennial parents, across all demographics, are well-versed in the use of online banking and similar products. Parents of all income levels in other states have proven it’s possible, and ESAs will empower Virginia parents with the same options as their counterparts around the country.

Are ESAs the same as vouchers?

No. The key aspect that distinguishes ESAs from vouchers is the parents’ control over selection of the education option for their student. Instead of the State sending funds directly from the state to a specific private school, the state instead deposits funds into a parent-controlled account. These funds can then be spent on wide array of approved education services, not only tuition, like in voucher programs.

ARE ESAs CONSTITUTIONAL?

Yes. Even as the U.S. Supreme Court has overwhelmingly upheld school choice programs of all stripes, state Constitutional questions generated by anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments in many states, including Virginia, have routinely plagued voucher programs. However, Education Savings Accounts have withstood Blaine Amendment challenges precisely because of the legal difference between a voucher and an ESA. Arizona, home of the nation’s oldest ESA program, provides the framework. According to the Institute for Justice, which successfully defended Arizona’s ESA program in state court and won the recent Espinoza school choice victory before the U.S. Supreme Court:

“…the Arizona Supreme Court was faced with deciding whether two new state educational programs—traditional voucher programs—designed to educate special needs and foster children were constitutional under the Arizona Constitution. In Cain v. Horne, the Arizona Supreme Court said they were not and struck down these programs because parents had “no choice; they [had to] endorse the check” over to a private school. 

The Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program was designed to comply with the specific instructions laid out by the Arizona Supreme Court in Cain v. Horne. There, the Court said it was “immaterial” that the “check or warrants first pass through the hands of parents” because once the child was accepted by a private school, both voucher programs at is¬sue gave parents or guardians “no choice; they [had to] endorse the check or warrant to the qualified school.” That is not true of the Empowerment Account program. Parents have ample choice as to where and how to spend the money. The Empowerment Account program clearly transfers state funds to parents and children for educational purposes—not to private or religious schools.

The Arizona Supreme Court’s decision in Cain v. Horne was devastating for many parents whose children were flourishing in their school of choice. But, as is the American way, school choice supporters have turned adversity into an opportunity to expand educational freedom in a way that will save taxpayers money.