GOP plan enhances private role in ed savings accounts

GOP plan enhances private role in ed savings accounts

(Mich.) As decisions to expand controversial education savings plans that allow public school funding to be spent on private schools roil many parts of the country, Republican lawmakers in Michigan are looking to give parents more flexibility in using the funds, and employers more options for helping.

A package of bills introduced by primary author State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, seeks to expand the Michigan Education Savings Program (MESP) to include K-12 services and vocational education. Currently, the savings program can only be used to help families save for their child’s college education.

Colbeck told the Senate Education Committee Tuesday that, under Senate Bills 544-549, likely eligible K-12 educational services could include tutoring, marching band instruments, uniforms for school sports, out of pocket transportation expenses or SAT preparatory courses. And that, in addition to investment from families, private businesses could contribute to a student’s educational savings account as a recruitment tool of sorts to develop future workforce talent.

“One of the things we’d like to do with these accounts is to put the control in terms of spending decision purposes in the hands of the end customers, and the ones that have the most to gain or lose in terms of education services–so we’re putting control back in the hands of parents,” Colbeck said. “And this is an opportunity to get more people engaged and provide additional funding streams that I think are providing value not just for students, but also for the employers and parents struggling to find money for a college education.”

In six states–Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee–education savings accounts allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools, and use the funding that would have gone to the school for private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, and other approved services and materials.

School choice proponents say that education savings accounts give parents more opportunities to enroll their children in schools that meet their educational needs or fit better with their spiritual beliefs. Opponents, meanwhile, argue that these programs are largely used by more-affluent families to subsidize their private-school tuition bills, and that low-income children who could benefit most are rarely benefiting at all.

In Arizona, which implemented the first education savings program in 2011, more than 75 percent of the money pulled out of public schools in 2017 for the state’s program came from districts in more affluent areas with school ratings of an "A" or "B," while only 4 percent of the money came from poorly rated school districts, according to an Arizona Republic analysis.

In April, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill expanding the program to include all students. The program had previously been restricted to students with disabilities, or children in foster care, in military families or enrolled in low-performing schools. Last year, the Nevada Supreme Court put the state’s program on hold until the legislature could arrange a dedicated funding stream for it. Nevada’s program had also been open to nearly every student.

In Michigan, the new plan proposed by lawmakers would only be available for students enrolled in public schools, and would not funnel any money away from public education by allowing students to use the money to enroll in a private school.

Instead, students would simply be allowed to use funding to help supplement extracurricular school activities, academic support services not covered by their school, or for career training opportunities. The bills charge the Michigan Department of Education with identifying eligible education services.

Colbeck said he would like to develop a funding stream for the education savings program that partially relies on family contributions as well as work-study programs currently employed by local private schools that serve low-income youth. In exchange for five days of work per month during the school year, participating employers would provide up to $7,000 per year toward the cost of education for a student participating in the program, instead of paying the student wages directly.

High school students would receive valuable work experience, cash strapped families would have some of their financial burden relieved, and employers could identify promising employees and address staffing gaps.

But in order for such a program to work effectively and to hold students accountable for their work, Colbeck said funding would have to be provided via student-specific accounts, opposed to creating a school- or district-wide program.

The “Enhanced MESP” accounts could offer a way to introduce thousands of dollars per year of additional funding for individual educational needs without raising taxes, Colbeck said.

Other authors of the suite of bills include Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, and Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville.