Education savings account bill generates opposition

BISMARCK - A Bismarck lawmaker is proposing a bill to establish an educational savings account program as an option for North Dakota parents.The concept is not new at the North Dakota Legislature - the bill would allow parents to opt out of sendi...
Rep. Rick Becker R-Bismarck, listens to testimony in the House Transportation Committee on Friday, Jan. 20, 2016. Photo by Will Kincaid / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK - A Bismarck lawmaker is proposing a bill to establish an educational savings account program as an option for North Dakota parents.

The concept is not new at the North Dakota Legislature - the bill would allow parents to opt out of sending their kids to a public school and, instead, use that public school funding for private school tuition or homeschooling.

"It's a school choice program," said Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, who introduced the bill Tuesday at a House Education Committee meeting.

The bill would allow parents to enroll their children in an educational savings account, or ESA, which would fall under the authority of the state treasurer. It would still require parents to send their children to accredited schools and qualified teachers, Becker said.

Over the course of a school year, the state would put money into a debit account for parents to use for "specific educational purposes." Becker said 75 percent of the state's contribution to public schools - about $5,600 - would go to an ESA each year.

Those who support the bill say it allows parents to decide how to educate their kids. However, opponents of the bill say it would take funding away from local school districts. Some are also concerned about whether the state could provide public money to sectarian schools, and an issue was brought up in regard to separation of the church and state.

"There's nervousness about this bill statewide," said Aimee Copas, director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, which represents school administrators at public and non-public schools.

Supporters of the bill say it would allow parents to have a choice. Becker said the bill could save the state some money. However, exact numbers and figures still need to be determined. He also said the program would make districts "more competitive."

Former Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, gave testimony in support of the bill Tuesday.

"Education savings accounts would provide the resources to help assist parents in paying for their children's education and, at the same time, save the state of North Dakota 25 percent of the cost of education," Dosch said. "Given the status of the state's current budget crunch, I think, now more than ever is the time for this bill."

A few parents also gave testimony in support of the bill to provide more funding for homeschooling families.

"I think this bill would greatly benefit our children. It is costly to homeschool," said Cathy Schwartz, who attended the hearing with her husband, Kent Schwartz, and their children. She said they have chosen to homeschool their children due, in part, to their medical needs.

Opponents such as Nick Archuleta, who heads the North Dakota Education Association, said the bill would only harm public schools.

"What is certain is that if an exodus from the public schools does occur, public schools will have fewer resources to meet the needs of the remaining students," he said.

Copas told the committee some school districts could stand to lose millions of dollars.

"The cost to operate our public schools would not change. It would simply mean less dollars to do so, which would hurt the opportunities for the overwhelming majority of our students," she said.

Anita Thomas, general counsel with the North Dakota School Boards Association, testified in opposition of the bill.

"Almost every session, bills are introduced to try and direct dollars into the hands of parents who choose to send their children to private schools or to homeschool their children. These bills have not been successful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is questions about the constitutionality," Thomas said.

Thomas pointed to Article 8, Section 2 of the constitution, which states the legislative assembly "shall provide for a uniform system of free public." And Section 5: "No money raised for the support of the public schools of the state shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school."

"While this bill does not appropriate money for any sectarian school, it most certainly would make money available for parents to use in support of those sectarian schools and therein lies the next constitutional issue," she said.

New students or students who spent the previous year at a public school would qualify for the ESA program, Becker said.

Five states have established education savings account programs - Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Tennessee and Mississippi. The current program in Nevada is suspended due to a Nevada Supreme Court ruling.