ESA Basics: Understanding this New Lifeline

Children trapped in Pennsylvania's worst-performing schools could soon have new educational opportunities. On Wednesday, Senator John DiSanto (R-Dauphin County) introduced Senate Bill 2, establishing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in Pennsylvania.

ESAs would be a lifeline for families confined to failing schools. Here's how the accounts work:

Who: The accounts are controlled by the parents or guardians of a school-age child living within the boundaries of any school with PSSA scores in the bottom 15 percent of schools statewide. Children are not eligible for an ESA if they receive an EITC or OSTC scholarship.

What: A percentage of the state’s per pupil education subsidy is deposited into a special account administered by the Treasury department. The percentage is determined by a formula accounting for transportation costs and special education needs. For students without special needs, the average ESA would receive a $5,731 deposit, or about 94 percent of the state per pupil subsidy, according to 2015-16 figures. These funds could be used for a variety of education-related expenses, including tuition and fees at private schools, tutoring, and services for children with special needs.

Where: Pennsylvania's failing schools are currently found in 44 counties and enroll about 200,000 students. The state Department of Education would annually update a list of schools accepting ESA funds.

When: Each year, parents or guardians would submit a one page application. Funds will be deposited in the ESA each quarter, with unused money rolled over each year for future educational expenses, provided the  child remains in the program. Money remaining in the account can be used for higher education expenses for up to two years after high school graduation.

Cost: ESAs do not impose an additional cost upon families or the state. In fact, they save tax dollars by educating children with just 94 percent of the current state subsidy per student. In addition, the ability of ESA funds to roll over from year to year encourages efficient use.

Currently, students in these failing schools have no alternatives. While charter schools and tax credit programs help, they can't save the thousands of children on their waiting lists. ESAs offer these students a chance at quality education.  

Lance Deane, an EITC recipient and recent graduate of Kutztown University, sums it up well: 

I just want to stress the importance of having that chance, having that opportunity, to go to [school] where you want.

Education Savings Accounts have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of students who are left behind in Pennsylvania's struggling schools. These children have waited long enough.