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Progressive or regressive? Democrats debate Education Savings Accounts


Carolina Journal

State Senator Graig Meyer, D-Caswell, and Marcus Brandon, executive director of North Carolina Campaign for Achievement Now, a former North Carolina state representative, joined a democratic panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute to debate Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Brandon argued in favor of ESAs, while Meyer pushed back against them. 

Also on the panel was Ravi Gupta, founder of The Branch, who argued in favor, and Bethany Little, managing principal at Education Counsel, against. Nat Malkus, senior fellow and deputy director of education policy studies at AEI, moderated the debate.  

Education Savings Accounts are government-funded accounts controlled by parents that can be used for approved education expenses. ESAs shouldn’t be confused with a Coverdale ESA or a 529 account, both of which allow parents to fund education accounts using their own after-tax dollars.

“ESAs provide parents of eligible students who are not enrolled in public schools with a state-funded education savings account,” described Malkus. “These accounts can be spent by parents on multiple things; they have multiple but restricted education uses. This can include tuition, tutoring, educational activities, special education services, instructional materials, etc. On average, ESAs are valued at about $7500 per year…which is about two-thirds of public school per pupil spending in the states that have these programs…ESAs for students with special needs are usually a good bit higher.” 

Brandon outlined three reasons to support ESAs and school choice in general. First, it is because the people support it.

“It is beyond me how our party has gone against our base this long on this particular issue when it actually is germane to the base and their outcome,” said Brandon. “The second reason is because it makes sense. It is our constitutional responsibility. No law says we are required to go to public schools; the law says we are required to provide a public education. It is our constitutional responsibility to provide access to what the parents deem adequate; it is not up to you to deem what is adequate for somebody else’s child. Number three is, because I am a progressive, and this is the most progressive policy I have ever advocated for in my life. When did it become progressive to say that only people with money deserve a safe space? And this is the position of my party.”

Meyer called on the audience to remember the promise that society made to the greater calling of becoming one United States, which depends on many institutions that bind us together. The one which does so the most is public schools, explained Meyer, reiterating the word ‘public’ refers to everyone.

“The threat of ESAs and some other choice provisions to disuniting this fundamental piece of who we are and how we build our society is a sufficient threat that I worry about the role that ESAs and vouchers play in leading all of us to somehow admit defeat on the promise of what our society is meant to be,” said Meyer.   

While those in favor of ESAs argue they are progressive, those against them, like Meyer, believe they are regressive.

“Vouchers are not serving a majority of students of color, they are not helping kids in poor rural communities,” said Meyer. “That is inherently regressive; we don’t need our public money paying for someone’s private education that they can already afford.”

North Carolina’s ESA program started in 2017, and the first awards were made in 2019.  It provides eligible recipients about $4,500 per semester and $9,000 per year. Today, it serves 3,356 special needs ESA recipients.  The average amount is $11,230, according to Dr. Bob Luebke, Director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. 

In North Carolina, 43% of the voucher program recipients are persons of color, over 15,000 are on the program, and all have income limits. Brandon explained that the accusation that the program is predominantly affluent, white people is not valid.

“We also have a special needs program that is ESA+,” said Brandon. “[T]hat also has helped tremendous families that are not affluent, and they’re not rich. The reason why this is progressive is it has created an equity line. It’s equitable.”

Malkus asked the panel how ESAs are better or differ from vouchers as much of the data is on vouchers, and terms like “vouchers” and “ESAs” are often misunderstood or used interchangeably.

“A lot of things that our party fears about school choice, I think ESAs is the one that actually protects public schools more than the other policies that I have supported,” said Brandon. “With ESAs, there is a range of public support. Most parents are making choices out of maybe one or two things out of the public school that they are not getting, but it is essential enough for them to make a different choice. This is why progressives and Democrats need to be at the table.”

He calls out his own party for abdicating responsibility to the Republicans just because they don’t like a policy. Brandon cites this abdication as a cause of inequity.

“I don’t think there is a sufficiently drawn line between what is a voucher and an ESA in any definition that has ever been offered, including the one we are using tonight,” responded Meyer. “If we are going to talk about ESAs that are used as a supplement to public school education, then why not just give people a child tax credit. It’s paternalistic and regressive to say that you have to use it for this other thing. We can just give you the money back, and you can decide what’s the best thing for your family.” 

Brandon emphasized in his closing statement that opinions, studies and polls don’t matter to him.

“What matters to me is if Miss Brown has the right to choose a safe space, and this is all this is about,” said Brandon. He emphasized that the policymakers’ job is to create access, regardless of whether or not you feel that certain schools might be inadequate.

Meyer emphasized in his closing statement the need for a real debate on how to solve what he described as “the fundamental promise of public schools.” He says he wants public schools to be an “institution to hold us together” and ensure that no kids are left behind.

From Luebke’s perspective, ESAs are likely to be a key education policy tool going forward.

“Education Savings Accounts (ESA) are the future of educational choice,” he said. “North Carolina’s ESA program is popular because it works. ESAs empower parents to take control of their child’s education. They allow parents to use funds to meet the unique educational and medical needs of their special needs child. ESAs are a great tool to allow students to develop and access quality educational opportunities.  My guess is in a short time, everyone will know what ESAs are.”    

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