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Smoothing the Path for Families Navigating the Changing Education Landscape

Colleen Hroncich and Jamie Buckland

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Educational freedom is expanding. Last week, Louisiana became the seventeenth state to enact education savings accounts (ESAs), which allow parents to use a portion of state education dollars for a variety of educational expenses. In all, thirty‐​three states plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico now offer some form of school choice, including ESAs, tax credit ESAs, tax credit scholarships, and vouchers. The advocacy group EdChoice estimates that more than one million US students are currently participating in a K–12 private school choice program.

This spread of educational freedom—along with new learning options like microschools and hybrid schools—means many parents are faced with a more diverse educational landscape than they experienced growing up. ESAs, in particular, are opening new avenues for students. While programs such as vouchers and tax credit scholarships pave the way for kids to attend a nonpublic school, they don’t allow parents to customize their children’s education the way ESAs do. Depending on the state, participating students can use ESA funding to pay for part‐​time classes at public and private schools, tutoring, curricula, services for special needs, and more.

While the new opportunities available to students are tremendous, the changing landscape can be difficult to understand. That’s why there is a growing movement to include “choice navigators” as an eligible expense in ESA programs. Choice navigators can inform parents about the various ways to satisfy a state’s compulsory education requirements, what funding programs and educational options are available, and how to customize an education program for their children.

Access to navigation support can be very helpful for parents, but it is crucial that states include utmost flexibility when incorporating a navigation option. Florida is the only state that specifically includes choice navigators as an eligible ESA expense, but the current definition of a choice navigator is largely based on requirements to teach in Florida public schools. This limitation doesn’t make sense when the goal is to help parents navigate educational options beyond the public school system.

Our new Cato Policy Analysis, Helping Families Navigate the Changing Education Landscape, delves into the issue of choice navigators. We examine several key elements, such as determining the types of navigation services that parents need in the changing education landscape; identifying best practices that states can adopt to simplify ESA navigation; tapping into the experiences of current ESA users and traditional homeschoolers; and discussing policies that can encourage an adequate supply of navigators without creating counterproductive rules.

The spread of educational freedom, especially ESAs, is exciting because it is opening new options to millions of children. But if these programs stumble or if parents find them too cumbersome, it will stymie efforts to pass new programs or expand existing ones. Giving families the ability to fund navigation services is one way to help ensure these programs succeed in the goal of enabling families to access the educational options that work best for them.

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