State money in parents’ hands: A look at Education Savings Accounts

FILE - Classroom (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Classroom (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Key lawmakers are making plans to overhaul your child’s school during the next legislative session. The president of the Texas Senate, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick laid out his priorities in Dallas, including the idea of “Education Savings Accounts.”

Here’s how it would work. Right now, each student in public school gets $5,200 from the state. That tax money follows the student to their local school district. But under this new program, parents could opt out of public school and the state would give them the $5,200 to spend on educational materials to home school their child, pay for tutoring, or pay for tuition at a private school.

Melissa Bodenger lives in Eanes ISD. Bodenger and her husband both went to schools west of Austin.

“We know that it’s a very good school district. My daughter is in the school district and it’s going to be great for her. It’s just not the best environment for Josh,” said Bodenger.

Her son, Joshua, has autism and Melissa pays around $9,000 a year to educate him in the year-round Magnolia school that adjusts classes to Josh’s needs. She wants her tax dollars to help pay for his education.

“We don’t have the option of whether we pay property taxes and we have no say in how it’s being used,” said Bodenger.

“We know that even the best school doesn’t work for every child,” said Randan Steinhauser from Texans for Education Opportunity. She’d advise the state comptroller to administer and monitor where the money goes and what is bought by a would-be family.

“It takes the power away from the state and puts it in the hands of the parents,” said Steinhauser.

But the idea of diverting money from state schools came up against a skeptical house committee earlier this month, where lawmakers worried the money would be misused. Texas House districts are smaller than Senate districts so House lawmakers are known to be more concerned with their local school districts — and the money that goes to them.

“It’s taking it away from a system that’s already cash-strapped,” said Kate Kuhlmann from the Association of Texas Professional Educators. The organization, advocating for teachers and public schools, sides with the House leaders.

“How students are being educated and then transparency in terms of where that money is going. Both of those are huge concerns,” said Kuhlman.

The legislative session begins in January. Parents like Bodenger will eagerly watch the House and Senate argue over the details.

In 2015, Nevada lawmakers passed education savings accounts, known as ESAs. Around 8,000 families signed up for the program. But public school supporters sued the state and the supreme court struck the law down because of the specifics of how it was funded. Texas school choice supporters were excited because they say the ruling upheld the basic idea of “education savings accounts.”

An extended interview with Randan Steinhauser from Texans for Education Opportunity:

An extended interview with Kate Kuhlmann from the Association of Texas Professional Educators:

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