The Truth about Education Savings Accounts in Florida

The Tampa Bay Times didn’t tell the whole story – not even close.

A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times took aim at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida’s education savings account (ESA) program – but completely missed the mark. The author of the story reviewed a purchasing guide from Step Up for Students (the nonprofit organization that administers Florida’s ESA) and wrote that funds could potentially be spent by families on 55” TVs, theme parks, and other expenses. The implication is that such expenses could be a waste of taxpayer money. But the reporter didn’t tell the whole story – not even close.

Evidence Shows that Families Rarely Misspend ESA Funds

The Tampa Bay Times article says, “Some Florida activists raised concerns that the state could run into problems like Arizona faced, when its auditor general found education savings accounts being misspent on unauthorized items.”

What the reporter fails to note is that the 2018 report identified 900 transactions totaling more than $700,000 of waste – which equally implies that 99% of ESA spending was not wasted, according to the Goldwater Institute. The article also failed to mention a follow-up report from the auditor general in 2020 that found wasteful spending for that program had fallen to an astounding 0.001%.

A wasteful spending rate of 0.001% is far below the wasteful public school spending we read about every day. There’s the Massachusetts school principal who took $40,000 in school funds to pay for luxury vacations, a Colorado school principal who embezzled more than $100,000 from the school district, and more than $500,000 worth of questionable expenses by multiple employees within the Montgomery County, Maryland public school district’s transportation department.

What the Tampa Bay Times article also failed to explain is that Florida carefully considers the educational implications for the individual student before approving any expense. The article notes, for example, that Florida historically has not approved requests to purchase theme park tickets but was convinced to change the policy: “A student with severe developmental disabilities might better focus when stimulated by the sights and sounds, for example, or a home-school family may incorporate ‘all the different history and culture lessons available at Disney World,’ such as art and music festivals.”

When Families Use an ESA, Public Schools Still Retain a Significant Portion of Funds

Florida’s ESA program, like all ESA programs, only diverts the state portion of funding that would have otherwise been spent to teaching the participating students in their local public school. Currently, Florida spends an average of about $10,401 per public school student, but the average ESA award is $7,800. This means that, on average, when a family uses this program, the public school that they leave still receives $2,601 for the former student.

This means higher ESA program participation rate actually increases the per-pupil spending for students still attending in Florida’s public schools.

Start Thinking About Education in Terms of Students, not Systems

America has long embraced a one-size-fits-all educational approach that prioritizes systems over individual students. The results are clear: 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores are at their lowest levels in 20 years, 33% of 3rd graders can’t read at their grade level, and less than half of US adults can name all three branches of government. These statistics exemplify why so many states are reimagining education through the use of ESAs.

Learning can and should be a highly personalized experience that takes the form of the individual student being taught. Families who believe their local public school is the best option are free to continue sending their children to those public schools, but we can’t forget about the kids who could achieve more if allowed to attend a private school, virtual school, home school, or charter school. Whatever the environment, families should be free to choose the platform that best fits their student’s needs.

It’s time that America stops prioritizing educational systems over students and families. All students – regardless of their income, zip code, disability status, or any other factor – should be allowed access to the schools that is the best fit for them. Policies like Florida’s universal ESA program makes that access a reality.

In Depth: Education

An excellent education has long been recognized as key to the American Dream. Unfortunately, the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system is failing our students, leaving them unprepared for college, careers, or life. Similarly, our higher education system is leaving students with higher debt burdens and fewer career guarantees…

+ Education In Depth