We’ve formed some great relationships with homeschooling parents and children from 40+ countries around the world. We know that education is important to them all – evidenced by their decisions to invest in their child’s STEM learning through our carefully designed STEM kits and curriculum. But we also know that for some parents, this type of STEM education enrichment (STEM kits) isn’t financially possible. An Education Savings Account (ESA) might just be the tool you never knew you needed to up your homeschool game (and so much more) – especially if you live in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, or Mississippi.
Ask any parent who has put a child through college, and they will tell you that the United States has put a premium on higher education. Now ask any homeschool parent about the price of homeschooling their child. If 4 years in college is expensive, picture the cost of educational expenses for quality curriculum, enrichment, and educational tools/materials for 12 years. It can add up quickly.
An Education Savings Account could be the saving plan you need to give your wallet a break. Find out if and how your student can qualify, and what opportunities an ESA program can open up for your growing student.
What is an Education Savings Account (ESA)?
The term “Education Savings Account” can mean so many things. It could reference a personal savings account that parents simply designated as the account where they acorn money away for their child’s higher education.
It could also refer to an education IRA, a 529 savings plan, or a Coverdell education savings account. Often, when someone refers to education savings, they’re specifically talking about opening college savings plans. But what about all of the tuition and educational expenses that homeschool and private school parents incur before their children even leave the nest? Fun fact: ESA’s, 529’s, and Coverdell savings plans can all be used for elementary and secondary education expenses as well as college. Each type of savings plan has different uses and benefits:
What Makes an Education Savings Account (ESA) different from a 529 or Coverdell Savings Plan?
While a 529 and a Coverdell ESA are tax-advantaged government savings plans whose funds are dedicated to qualified education expenses, the initial contribution in those accounts is coming directly out of your pockets. Your earnings are essentially still being used to fund education enrichment.
The type of Education Savings Account (ESA) that we are referring to is helping countless homeschool parents provide needed enrichment and services for their students that they otherwise would be unable to afford. This particular type of ESA is not a 529, or a Coverdell. It’s a government authorized, publicly funded account loaded with money from the state, not funds from your personal savings or checking account. If you live in a state that has rolled out a government authorized ESA program, your student may be eligible for an account loaded with these publicly funded dollars.
This type of account is a pillar for educational choice. Often, homeschool parents feel that their public district is not the best fit for their child. This opinion can be based on several factors including district performance, religious beliefs, or special education needs. Education Savings Accounts give parents the necessary funding to make the very best choices for their child, with fewer financial barriers.
What Types of Services Can I Purchase With My Child’s ESA?
While a 529 and a Coverdell account can be used for elementary and secondary education, they are still built with money out of your pocket. A 529 plan can only be used on tuition for elementary and secondary schools, and no other expenses.
An Education Savings Account (ESA) can be used for more than just tuition. Uses are restricted to state-approved vendors and services, but there are many more qualifying education costs that are eligible under some ESA guidelines. Making the move to pull your child out of their public district during their K-12 years is a big decision, but an ESA can give you the financial freedom to customize your child’s education (with certain restrictions).
Your ESA account withdrawals can be used to pay for elementary and secondary private school tuition and fees. Additionally, they can be used for online learning programs, therapy, academic tutoring, transportation to approved schools, and online learning programs. They can also cover the costs of tuition and supplies at community colleges. There are slight differences in exactly what costs are eligible based on the beneficiary’s home state ESA program.
Those online learning programs and enrichment tools could include Thimble’s spiraling STEM curriculum and accompanying STEM kits. Homeschool parents know that coding, robotics, and engineering are an avenue to a great career path, but might not have the STEM background to lead their students in that area. Some parents of private school students might feel like as though the STEM curriculum in their school is only covering the bare minimum. An ESA enables you to purchase Thimble’s STEM kits, carefully designed curriculum, and live online classes to customize your child’s STEM learning.
How Do Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s) Work?
We’ve all heard the old saying, “Only two things are certain in life: death and taxes!” Your state makes revenue on sales and income tax, among other things. That state tax revenue is budgeted by the state government and a portion of it is allocated for education.
In states with an ESA program, you can use taxpayer funds that would otherwise have been allocated to your public district to educate your child. As a parent, you can choose to withdraw your child and some of those public funds to build a custom education plan that provides everything they need – things they may otherwise not have access to in their public school.
Often, these funds are utilized by families with a restricted-use debit card. This debit card can be used to purchase services and materials, or tuition at private schools. The state approves specific vendors who are approved to accept your debit card. Expense receipts are then turned in by families to the ESA’s governing body and reviewed.
These funds can roll over year after year. They can even roll over after graduation for qualified higher education expenses and community college expenses.
Is My Child Eligible for an ESA?
According to EdChoice, as of 2019, almost 19,000 students are using Education Savings Account (ESA) funds to make the most of their education. There were at one time six states with ESA programs, but currently, only five states offer this option to homeschooling and special needs students, parents, and families. Qualifying for an ESA is slightly different in each state, but one thing is true of all programs: The qualified student has withdrawn from their public school and opted for some other education provider (private school, homeschool, or charter).
States with Education Savings Account Programs
Arizona – Empowerment Scholarship Account
Arizona began their ESA program, called the “Empowerment Scholarship Account”, in 2011. They are the first state to approve this program for students. It was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer. As of the fall of 2019, after being in place for 8 years, the Empowerment Scholarship Account has 7,128 participating students and 134 participating schools.
Twenty-two percent of students in Arizona are eligible for an Empowerment Scholarship, and the average account value is $14,185. Students with special needs receive a higher funding amount on average. There are no students who are disqualified based on their family’s gross income, but any student whose family earns MORE than 250 times the poverty level has a minor contribution limit. Those families are only eligible for 90% of the amount of funds allocated to their public or charter school for their enrollment. All families under that income amount are eligible for 100% of the base amount their district would receive for them. There is also no limit to the number of students who can be serviced by Arizona’s ESA program, so any qualifying student who applies will be approved.
Some facts about eligibility requirements for Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account:
Eligible students have attended a participating Arizona public school for 100 days of the previous fiscal year unless they are a special needs student of preschool age.
Eligible students meet one of the following criteria:
Is currently receiving ESA funds
Was adopted from Arizona’s foster care system
Attends a school with a D or F performance grade
Is a resident on a Native American reservation
Are a child of an active-duty military member
Are a child of a parent who is legally blind or deaf
Are a child of a parent who was killed in the line of duty
Are a sibling of a student currently receiving ESA funds
Florida – Gardiner Scholarship Program
Florida’s Education Savings Account (ESA) is known as the Gardiner Scholarship Program. Beneficiaries of Gardiner Scholarship Program funds are exclusively students with special needs. Florida has America’s second-longest-running ESA program, and like Arizona’s program, makes great strides in educational choice for parents. It allows parents to provide their designated beneficiary with special needs services that may have otherwise been out of reach financially.
Eleven percent of Florida’s students are eligible for the Gardiner Scholarship Program, and as of the fall of 2019, 13,884 students were participating in it. There are 1,634 participating schools. This statewide program has no income limit or enrollment cap. Florida’s legislature allotted almost $150 million to the program for the 2019-2020 school year.
Some facts about eligibility requirements for Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program:
Students must be between the ages of 3-22. If a student reaches the twelfth grade before the age of 22, this ends their enrollment age limit.
Students must have an IEP, or have any of the following diagnoses:
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Deaf or Visually Impaired
Dual Sensory Impairment
Traumatic Brain Injury
Any rare disease that is known to affect less than 200,000 Americans
Even Students 3, 4, and 5 years old deemed “at-risk” for developmental delays, but without an IEP are deemed eligible.
The average full scholarship amount is $10,000 but varies based on county, grade level, and individual levels of specific need. This Education Savings Account (ESA) program’s application process is handled by the A.A.A. Scholarship Foundation and Step Up for Students – both non-profit organizations.
Mississippi – Equal Opportunity for Students With Special Needs Program
This Education Savings Account program was launched in Mississippi in 2015 as a 5-year pilot program. It came up for renewal in 2020 and there were some legislative calls for increased oversight. The program passed through the Mississippi State Senate and then in June of 2020, it also was passed by the House of Representatives with some minor amendments.
Mississippi’s program was the 3rd Education Savings Account program launched in the US, and as of the fall of 2019 was serving 502 students. Nineteen percent of Mississippi students are eligible for the program, which has 98 participating schools.
Some facts about eligibility requirements for Mississippi’s Equal Opportunity for Students With Special Needs Program:
Students are eligible if they have an active IEP within the last 5 years.
Students are eligible if they participated in the ESA program during the previous school year.
Unlike Arizona and Florida, Mississippi’s program has an enrollment cap that increases by 500 students each year. Though some complain that the program is underfunded, the state increased dollars allocated to the program from $3 million to $5 million for the 2019-2020 school year.
In the 2017-2018 school year (when funding was at the $3 million mark), the average scholarship amount was $6,494. However, that amount increased to $6,765 for the 2019-2020 school year.
Tennessee – Individualized Education Account Program
Tennessee’s Individualized Education Account Program is the 4th ESA program to roll out in the United States. It is also only for students with special needs. Only 2% of Tennessee students statewide are eligible for the program, and as of the fall of 2019, only 137 students were participating.
This ESA program has no income limit or enrollment cap. The 2018-2019 average account value was projected to come in at around $5,830. Participating students receive 100% the amount of money that their public district would have received if they attended – including extra funds allocated to public schools for students who are deemed special needs.
Funds from this account can roll over to the next year, but at least 50% of the annual scholarship amount must be spent by the end of the school year.
Some facts about eligibility requirements for Tennessee’s Individualized Education Account Program:
Students are eligible if they are in K-12th grade and
Have an IEP and
Have an official diagnosis of one or more of the following:
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Hearing or Visual Impairment
Traumatic Brain Injury
Tennessee parents interested in school choice programs can also further investigate Tennessee’s state-funded school voucher program. While school vouchers and Education Savings Accounts (ESA’s) are not the same, vouchers still offer parents options for customizing the education of their special needs students. This is a new Education Savings Account pilot program launched in 2019 and rolling out within the 2021-2022 school year.
North Carolina – Personal Education Savings Accounts
North Carolina rolled out the 6th ESA program in the US. It is also designed for assisting parents of students with varied special needs to individualize their learning to best fit their needs. As of the fall of 2019, 282 students in NC were participating, as well as 78 schools.
Unlike some other ESA programs, North Carolina’s Personal Education Savings Account program allows students to attend public school part-time and still access partial funds through an ESA. Also unlike other state ESA programs, North Carolina’s ESA funding cannot be used at “higher education institutions.
Some facts about eligibility requirements for North Carolina’s Personal Education Savings Accounts:
Students are eligible if they have an IEP and
Are identified as a “child with disabilities” as per the definition outlined by IDEA.
North Carolina’s ESA program has no income limit and no enrollment cap. It does, however, have an account funding cap of $9,000 per year. Like other ESA’s, it can be used to pay for education, therapy, tuition, and transportation costs related to education.
North Carolina allotted $3.4 million to the program in the 2018-2019 school year, but a quarter-million of that money was for administrative costs, not student accounts.
Nevada – The Token Sob Story
Unfortunately, our list of states with current ESA programs stops at 5. Nevada used to have an active ESA program that special needs students could utilize. This program is currently inactive.
In 2016, lawsuits were filed claiming that the “funding mechanism” for the program was unconstitutional. They must have had good arguments because in 2017 the Nevada legislature cut funding to the program. In 2019, Nevada governor Steve Sirolak repealed Nevada’s ESA law altogether.
Because Education Saving Accounts are not organized by the federal government, each state makes decisions to create, keep, or repeal these ESA programs.
ESA’s Provide Diverse Education Choices for Unique Learners
Every student is as exceptional and individual as the American population. Interests, skills, and abilities are diverse and ever-changing. This is one of the biggest reasons educational choice is a hot topic, and why many parents feel homeschooling is the best option for their unique learner. EdChoice has a comprehensive Education Savings Account (ESA) PDF available for download that offers information about current ESA programs, as well as what the future holds for ESA programs.
If your child has an interest in STEM, even with no current knowledge, Thimble’s thoughtfully designed homeschool STEM curriculum can open up a new world of learning – and an Education Savings Account (ESA) could help fund that life-changing opportunity. If Thimble is not on your states list of approved vendors, contact your programs governing body! They’ll need to send us an invite, and we’ll handle the rest on our end!
If you’d simply like to gauge their interest and abilities in robotics, and coding, and introduce new learning methods and topics, we encourage you to check out our mini Starter STEM kit!