Editor’s note: Six states – Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Nevada and North Carolina – have crafted education savings account programs as a means for families to exercise choice in finding the best educational environment for their children. Here is how the program works in Florida.
Q: What are education savings accounts?
A: Education savings accounts (ESAs) empower parents to customize education for their children. Traditional vouchers pay for private school tuition, but education savings accounts are more flexible. The state transfers a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula to a state-approved nonprofit organization which puts these funds into an account for each child. Parents then apply to this nonprofit for permission to use their child’s ESA funds to buy state-authorized educational services and products. Florida currently has two ESAs: the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs, and the Reading Scholarship for public school students in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.
Q: How can families use educations savings accounts?
A: Florida law authorizes Gardiner Scholarship families to use ESA funds to pay for private school tuition, tutoring services, books and other curricular materials. Additional uses include:
· Educational therapies from a licensed or accredited practitioner or provider
· A licensed or accredited paraprofessional or educational aide
· Tuition for vocational and life skills education
· Associated services that include educational and psychological evaluations, assistive technology rentals and braille translation services
· Tutoring or teaching services provided by an individual or facility accredited by a state, regional or national accrediting organization
· Tuition or fees for a nonpublic online learning program
· Fees for a nationally standardized norm-referenced achievement test, an Advanced Placement examination or any exams related to college or university admission
· Services provided by a public school, including individual classes and extracurricular programs
Reading Scholarship families can use their ESA funds to pay for tuition and fees related to part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.
Legislation pending in the Florida Legislature (Senate Bill 48) would combine the state’s two income-based scholarships – the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship – into one program and convert it to an ESA, with narrower uses than Gardiner.
Q: What is the difference between an education savings account and a school choice scholarship?
A: School choice scholarships only allow parents to use public funds to pay private school tuition. A state-approved organization issues a check, which is endorsed by a parent and turned over to a private school, or the check can be issued directly to a school under the parents’ names. With education savings accounts, families working with a state-approved organization can use student funds for many different expenses, including, but not limited to, private school tuition.
A DEEPER DIVE
Q: How are education savings accounts administered in Florida?
A: An eligible family’s ESA funds go directly from the Florida Department of Education to a state-approved scholarship funding organization. The vast majority of ESAs in Florida are administered by the nonprofit organization Step Up For Students (SUFS), with offices in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg. Families tell SUFS what services or products they want to purchase. SUFS determines if a requested service or product fits an eligible category and if it’s appropriate for the child. SUFS either purchases the service or product for the family or reimburses the family if the family makes the purchase with out-of-pocket funds.
Q: How does a family know what services and products have been approved for purchase with ESA funds?
A: SUFS has an online catalog with an inventory of more than 60,000 education products that meet the statutory categorical definitions for ESA families, including curriculum materials, iPads and education software from which families can select.
Q: What is the vetting process for approving a family’s request for purchase and/or reimbursement of purchases?
A: Each request is reviewed independently by two knowledgeable and skilled SUFS staff members. Additionally, a parent advisory committee reviews selected requests and provides SUFS staff with feedback on whether these requests should be approved.
Q: What additional guardrails are in place to ensure the integrity of ESAs?
A: There are several provisions in place:
· SUFS’s online ESA purchasing and reimbursement platform is designed to prevent theft and fraud. The platform is not portable, which means it does not have the same vulnerabilities as a credit or debit card. A family can access and spend ESA funds only through a SUFS-controlled portal, which is located behind protected firewalls; is monitored by intrusion detection software; and requires user ID and password for access.
· If a service provider, such as an eligible school, approved tutor or approved therapist, submits a request for payment for a service through SUFS’s direct-pay process, a secure platform routes this request to the parent for approval after staff determines the provider and the service meets state eligibility guidelines.
· SUFS uses technology to track activity on its platform via IP addresses, looking for evidence of attempted fraud or theft. If a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees the parent approval came from the same IP address, anti-fraud staff is notified to investigate.
· To minimize the possibility of families selling items purchased with ESA funds, SUFS limits the number of items families may purchase within defined timeframes. For example, a family purchasing an approved laptop must wait two years before purchasing a second approved laptop.
Q: Are future improvements in the works to further guard the integrity of the program and further serve ESA families?
A: Yes. SUFS is working with an Artificial Intelligence firm in Jacksonville, NLP Logix, to develop algorithms that look for unusual purchasing patterns that would require further investigation, similar to what credit card companies do. Additionally, SUFS will be enabling families to evaluate the effectiveness of the services and products they have purchased and to share this feedback with other ESA families through its secure online platform.