Imagine being the parent of a 4th grader who cannot read. What would you do to help her?

Many parents would contemplate changing schools, hiring a tutor, or perhaps even homeschooling to make sure that she masters the basic skills necessary to succeed in school and life. But families with limited means often lack these options.

In Texas, this is the harsh reality that many parents face. According to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), more than half of fourth-grade students eligible for the national free- and reduced-price school lunch program scored “below basic” in reading. In Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth, more than six out of ten low-income students scored in that range.

The Texas state report card for the 2021-22 school year confirmed that lower-income students were struggling in reading. Only 43 percent of economically disadvantaged fourth graders scored at grade level or above on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam (STAAR).

Across the country, state lawmakers are creating new options for parents concerned that their children are falling behind in school. State-funded education savings account (ESA) programs provide parents with direct control of a share of their child’s public school funding. With state oversight of how funds are spent, parents can use ESAs to pay for tuition, tutoring, summer school, and even homeschooling expenses like curricula. These accounts essentially provide parents with a money-back guarantee on public education.

Eleven states currently offer education savings accounts to families. In 2022, Arizona expanded its popular ESA program to make all children eligible. More than 50,000 students are now served by the program. More recently, West Virginia, Iowa, Utah, and Arkansas created similar programs to give families direct control of education funding. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a new universal ESA program into law in March.

Now, the Texas legislature is considering offering ESAs. Earlier this month, the state senate passed Senate Bill 8, which would establish an ESA program worth roughly $8,000 for children who opt out of the public school system.

Under the plan, Texas students would be eligible to deposit their share of school funding in an account rather than attend a public school. The state would appoint organizations to administer funds. The bill also authorizes the state government to conduct audits to guarantee that funds are spent properly. As with other programs, parents can use the funds to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, homeschooling, and other education expenses.

The experience of other states suggests the overwhelming majority of Texas students would remain in their traditional public schools if the ESA bill becomes law. But for parents with children struggling to learn in public schools, an ESA is a lifeline.  

Giving parents more choices will also pressure traditional public schools to improve. Researchers have found that expanding freedom in education is “significantly associated” with increased NAEP test scores, “supporting the claim that choice and competition improve[] system-wide achievement.”

Some will likely argue that expanding equal opportunity in education requires that prioritizing resources for public schools that serve low-income children. For decades, public education advocates petitioned for providing additional resources to equalize funding for public schools. But U.S. Department of Education data show that Texas’s high-poverty districts spent $11,325 per student in 2020, about 17 percent more than what low-poverty districts spent.

But NAEP and Texas state test scores show that statewide achievement gaps persist. For example, on the 2022 STAAR test, 68 percent of "non-economically disadvantaged" fourth graders were on grade level in reading compared to just 43 percent of their "economically disadvantaged" peers.

This gap shows that the quality of education is more important than the number of dollars spent. Schools serving large numbers of disadvantaged students spent significantly more than those serving predominantly affluent students. And that was before Texas received $19 billion in emergency education funds from the federal government during the pandemic, with most of the funds earmarked for disadvantaged children. As of February, nearly $9 billion of those funds remained unspent.

With half of Texas’s disadvantaged elementary students struggling to read, parents deserve to give their children the high-quality education they need before it’s too late. An education savings account will give them that chance.