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Research & Commentary: Low-Income South Carolina Families Deserve Education Scholarship Accounts

January 14, 2022

20,000 Low-Income Children Could Benefit From Program By 2025–26

Companion legislation in the South Carolina Legislature would establish Education Scholarship Accounts, an education savings account (ESA) for low-income students and students with special needs.

With an ESA, state education funds allocated for a child are placed in a parent-controlled savings account. Under the proposed program, parents could use a state-provided, restricted-use debit card to access education funds to pay for resources for their child’s unique educational program. The ESAs could be used to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, textbooks and curriculum materials, online courses, tutoring services, educational therapies, computer hardware, or transportation costs. They could also be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT or ACT, as well as entrance examinations, tuition, fees, and textbooks at postsecondary institutions.

Funding for each account would equal South Carolina’s per-pupil funding for the school district in which the student is transferring out of. The program would be available to 5,000 children in kindergarten through third grade for the 2022–23 school year, 10,000 students in grades K–5 in 2023–24, 15,000 students in grades K–8 in 2024–25, and 20,000 students in grades K–12 in 2025–26. After 2026, there will be no cap on the number of ESA students, “contingent upon the amount of funds in the program.”

February 2018 survey of South Carolina private schools by EdChoice found these schools potentially have 20,000 open seats available across grades K–12, and 64 percent of the schools surveyed said they would likely participate in a universal ESA program, while 58 percent said they would be willing to participate in the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Account program. Only 5 percent of schools said they would not participate in an ESA program. However, there is still large room for growth in the number of schools that would participate in an ESA program, as just over half responded they were “not familiar” or “not too familiar” with ESAs.

Copious empirical research on school choice programs makes clear these programs 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 education choice programs like ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. Polling by EdChoice released in December 2020 found 81 percent support for ESAs, for example, 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. 

Expanding access to education choice would be a monumental benefit to the South Carolina’s children. Education Scholarship Accounts would be the perfect complimentary program to the state’s Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children Fund tax-credit scholarship program, which recent research has shown to have saved South Carolina taxpayers between $62 million and $99.8 million through Fiscal Year 2018. This works out to a savings of between $7,823 and $12,583 per each student participating in the program.

The goal of public education in the Palmetto 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.

The following documents provide more information about education choice programs.

Fiscal Effects of School Choice
https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Fiscal-Effects-of-School-Choice-Condensed.pdf
This EdChoice analysis of 40 private educational choice programs in 19 states plus D.C. summarizes the facts and evidence on the fiscal effects of educational choice programs across the United States and finds they have provided up to $28.3 billion in net fiscal savings to state and local taxpayers through Fiscal Year 2018. The programs in the analysis include three education savings accounts programs (ESAs), 19 school voucher programs, and 18 tax-credit scholarship programs.

Exploring South Carolina’s Private Education Sector
https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Exploring-South-Carolinas-Private-Education-Sector-by-Andrew-Catt-and-Michael-Shaw.pdf
This is the ninth entry in EdChoice’s School Survey Series. This brief synthesizes information about South Carolina’s private schools from a survey conducted by EdChoice. The survey looks at South Carolina private schools’ open seats, tuition and fees, regulatory concerns, and interest in school choice programs.

The 123s of School Choice (2020 Edition)
https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/123s-of-School-Choice-2020-4.pdf
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
http://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/A-Win-Win-Solution-The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Choice.pdf
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa830.pdf
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3272550
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

Child Safety Accounts: Protecting Our Children through Parental Freedom
https://www.heartland.org/_template-assets/documents/publications/CSAccountsPB.pdf
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

 

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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