If you are fortunate enough to have a job and super-fortunate to have a job that provides benefits, then you are likely aware of something called a Flexible Spending Account or FSA. An FSA allows an employee to set part of his or her pre-tax income aside in an account where it can then be used, most typically, for child care or medical expenses. FSA’s can be a handy and valuable benefit that makes some basic necessities of life more affordable.
Recently, however, some North Carolina politicians and activists have been touting a plan that would twist and turn the FSA idea into something much bigger, much more ambitious and quite worrisome. The proposal is to create something called Education Savings Accounts, or ESA’s.
With an ESA, parents who send their children to private school or who are homeschooling them would be given public tax dollars roughly equivalent to the amount the government spends per pupil on the public schools. The funds could then be used for expenses like private school tuition, books and supplies. ESA’s are, in short, a fancy term for school vouchers. This option is now being floated in North Carolina because last year’s voucher plan (a General Assembly proposal that would have allowed corporations to donate a part of their tax responsibility as a dollar-for-dollar tax credit to a scholarship granting organization which in turn would provided a scholarship to a low-income student) won’t be feasible if lawmakers go ahead with plans to eliminate the corporate income tax altogether in 2013.
Put simply, the ESA will be one more attack on the funding for public education because rather than using tax dollars to support already under-funded public schools, the state will be funding private schools and home schools, something which it should not do.
The ESA-voucher idea comes packaged in the false narrative that public schools are “failing” and that parents need “choice.” While flawed in many ways, our schools remain a precious and critically important public asset.
And while parents should certainly be free to make whatever choice they believe will help their children thrive, North Carolina has no choice: The state constitution explicitly states in two Articles that the state must guard and maintain the people’s right to education and that the General Assembly is required to “provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools.”
The North Carolina Constitution is not at all vague on this right. In fact, the right has been upheld by the North Carolina Supreme Court in the Leandro cases which state that a student has the right to a sound basic education.
Parents have the right to send their children to any school of their choosing, including a school in their home.
Parents also, however, have the right to demand that their state government live up to its constitutional obligations and provide enough funding for public schools so students receive a sound basic education. Of course, the state should be aiming to adequately and equitably fund all public schools so students receive a high quality education.
North Carolina should not be shirking its responsibility to provide a system of free public schools. Giving money to parents to pay tuition for a private school through an ESA is decidedly not free. For low-income parents, the money provided will frequently not be enough to pay the tuition. This is not guarding the right to education. In fact, it is selling the right by funding private schools. The right is not the state’s to sell and it certainly is not the right for corporations, who would likely administer and profit from ESAs, to buy.
FSA’s are a great way for people to avoid paying taxes on income and use that money for the medical care and child care they would need anyway. ESA’s, however, are an incredibly dangerous idea to use public money so as to avoid upholding a responsibility the state is required to perform anyway.
FSA’s provide money to use when people become ill. ESA’s will starve public schools of much needed dollars and thereby make our public education system sick. Choice may be important to a school system but when the options are only illusions that essentially nullify a right guaranteed by the state constitution, then the General Assembly will need to look for real choices for parents and students. The legislature should ensure the health of our public school system through proper funding so that the public school is the first and best option for parents and students.
Christopher Hill is the Director of the Education and Law Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.