Senate education bill focuses on students, not systems

The Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee has approved an education bill that prioritizes students over systems. Ask Gov. Tim Walz and lawmakers to support giving more Minnesota students an equal opportunity to access greater choice in K-12 education.

There is no greater door to success than an excellent education, but too many Minnesota students in our education system are being left behind. COVID-19 has confirmed the shortcomings and inflexibility of a top-down education system and has added a heightened sense of urgency to better meet the needs of students.

The Senate education bill will transform the way the state delivers education, which is greatly needed given the lackluster academic growth and persistent academic disparities Minnesota continues to grapple with. Not all students thrive in the same learning environment, and there are families desperate for other options. Empowering them with more control and flexibility over their children’s education will help them meet immediate needs. Several recent polls confirm parents — particularly among families of color and the least advantaged — support expanding school choice and how families access the learning environment that is best for them. Research shows that when parents actively choose schools for their children, students are more likely to succeed in school.

One such way the education bill empowers families is through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are an educational choice program focused on funding students over systems by allowing public school parents to use their child’s share of state education assistance to access a variety of educational services — ranging from tuition at a different school, tutoring or supplemental curriculum materials to mental health treatment, special education services/therapy or postsecondary costs, to name a few. Because ESAs provide families access to a variety of education-related services, they are not the same as vouchers.

Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee currently have ESA programs in place, and Kentucky and West Virginia recently had their ESA legislation passed into law. A handful of other states (including our fellow Midwest states Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, and Kansas) are currently considering their own ESA legislation. And our neighbor South Dakota recently signed into law tax credit scholarships, which is another way to empower parents and fund students instead of systems.

Minnesota has an opportunity to provide families a targeted solution that will help address academic, social, and emotional needs — needs that for many students have been exacerbated by limited learning options. State leaders should take the initiative to provide solutions now for our kids. Efforts that oppose expanding the education options families can access disproportionately impact students most in need of new opportunities. And it tells parents, “We don’t trust you.”

Out of the 28 empirical studies on the fiscal impact of educational choice programs on taxpayers and public schools, not one found a negative fiscal impact. Studies also show that educational choice programs not only improve the academic outcomes of those who participate in them but also of students remaining in public schools. And the structure of ESA programs has been found constitutional.

Funding students over systems is acceptable in higher education — such as Pell Grants and the GI bill, which didn’t destroy public colleges. It’s acceptable in early childhood programs. And it should be the same in K-12 education.

K-12 education is not a zero-sum game, and it’s time for Minnesota to trust families instead of bureaucrats with deciding what educational setting works best for their children.

Listen below to the testimony I gave on Education Savings Accounts before the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee.