New study shows intriguing results in education savings account use to support learning

Sandra Shoffner of Wauchula works with her son, Elliott, at the family’s dining room table using materials she purchased with her education savings account.

The longer parents utilize education savings accounts, the more comfortable they become using scholarship funds on curriculum, tutoring and educational services, a new research paper finds. Rural families in particular are more likely to use their ESA funds to customize their children’s education.

The report, “Distribution of Savings Account Usage Among Families: Evidence from the Florida Gardiner Scholarship Program,” by Michelle Lofton and Martin Lueken, was published March 4 in the Journal of School Choice. (You can read an abstract of the report here.

Florida’s ESA program, the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA), provides parents of students with special needs about $10,000 annually to pay for tuition, fees, books, curriculum, therapies, tutoring and more.

Researchers, with data provided by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit administering the ESA program (and which hosts this blog), set out to explore if parent spending habits change over the course of their child’s enrollment in the program.

Researchers examined parental spending for children enrolled between 2014-15 and 2018-19. During that time, parents received an average of $10,097 for their child, and spent an average of 21 transactions worth $8,373 from the account.

Private school tuition and fees made up 57% of spending, followed by instructional material (21%), specialized services (11%), and tutoring (5%).

Parents spent 88% of their funds in 2019 compared with just 68% in 2015.

Researchers found that students enrolled in the program longer use a higher percentage of their ESA funds, use their funds more frequently to purchase items, and make purchases from multiple categories of spending.

Spending habits also differ based on whether the family is a rural, suburban, or urban household, with rural households spending more on curriculum and instruction and less on private school tuition.

A frequent criticism of school choice among rural politicians is that it offers little benefit to their communities, but the study found rural families in ESA programs purchased from more than 300 unique educational providers, suggesting a diversity of educational needs in rural communities.

The researchers observed that rural students may see significant benefits from ESAs because students in rural schools tend to have fewer educational options than their urban and suburban peers.

You can read an article about how rural families in Florida are using ESAs to customize their children’s education here.

The study found that spending habits differ by race as well. Parents of Black and Hispanic students spent a higher percentage of funds on tuition and made fewer overall individual purchases.

Researchers believe the changing spending habits indicate that parents have learned from prior usage and are becoming more willing to create a customized education for their child over time.