More and more states are opening up new, individualized education opportunities for their students: Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s) in Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi for example. Vouchers in Florida. And right here in South Carolina, you may have heard of the Exceptional SC Scholarship Program for students with special needs.
But for busy parents just trying to find (or afford) the right learning environment for their child, it can be complicated to assess these different types of education choice programs. The broad categories of ESA’s, tax credits and vouchers even vary from state to state! So what’s the basic difference? Here’s a time-saving tutorial!
Education Choice 1.0 – Vouchers:
Let’s say a state wanted low-income students to be allowed to use their state share of education funds to pay for tuition at a private school of the parent’s choice. That state would then set up a voucher program whereby the state would give parents an allocation of state funds that can ONLY be used for school tuition, not additional education-related expenses. Vouchers are the oldest form of education choice, dating back to famed economist Milton Friedman’s initial conception of the idea. South Carolina does not have a voucher program.
Education Choice 2.0 – Tax Credit Scholarships:
EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation) defines tax-credit scholarships as “scholarships [that] allow taxpayers to receive full or partial tax-credits when they donate to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships.” This is precisely how South Carolina’s young tax-credit scholarship program, Exceptional SC works. This program allows individuals and businesses to voluntarily “contribute” up to 60% of their South Carolina tax liability to support scholarships for students who have special learning needs to attend approved private schools. The total program is currently capped at $10 million dollars a year and scholarship amounts can be up to $11,000 per approved student. Though the program is currently transitioning through significant accountability changes made in the recent legislative session, it continues to provide for students across South Carolina.
Education Choice 3.0 – Education Savings Accounts:
A state could also set up an Education Savings Account (ESA) program – the next generation of education choice. While ESA’s and vouchers both make direct use of state education dollars (as opposed to tax credit scholarships, which are funded through individual contributions), ESA’s are very different than vouchers. While still helpful, voucher systems (and tax credit scholarships) are more narrow than ESAs. Because funds transfer from the state to a school, there is really only one choice for the parent: which school to send their child to.
Under an ESA program, however, the choices are much broader. Instead of money flowing to a school, the state deposits funds directly into a special, personal account controlled by the parent. With those funds the parent can pay for a littany of carefully approved expenses, including tuition, tutoring, online learning, occupational therapy for students with disabilities…and in some instances, even roll-over unused funds from year to year to save for college!
Each of these 3 major types of education choice have different advantages. And whichever you may prefer, there is no doubt that expanding parent’s ability to find the right education fit for their child is the next wave in the future of education. That’s why Palmetto Promise is committed to fighting for the expansion of South Carolina’s Exceptional SC program, and to see South Carolina follow the example of other innovating states by establishing Education Savings Accounts. Both are critical moves to expand education opportunity in the Palmetto State and will allow every student to reach their full potential!