Court Report

How ESA Funding Could Undermine Homeschool Freedom

Last year brought a wave of legislation that provides government money for homeschooling. Critics of these new laws are already fighting back. What does this mean for your family?

Dave Dentel

Newsletter Editor/Staff Writer

At least a dozen states have moved on Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) in 2023—a type of government funding program that allows parents to use tax dollars to pay for private (and sometimes public) education expenses. Some states have established versions of these accounts, and some have blocked them.

Advocates hail the wave of ESA legislation as “a transformative change.” Critics worry that giving parents government money to pay for private school tuition and other education-related expenses will hurt public schools and degrade student achievement.

Homeschoolers fall on both sides of this issue.

HSLDA opposes any kind of government funding for homeschooling—these funds are most commonly referred to as ESAs, but they may also be packaged as vouchers or school choice funds.

We recognize that many families homeschool on a tight budget and might welcome additional resources, and that the thousands of dollars offered by some ESA programs can be very practically helpful for these parents. And we do support some programs that benefit homeschooling families financially, including some tax credits—as these allow homeschooling families to keep more of their hard-earned income.

We back initiatives that encourage philanthropy aimed at helping homeschoolers—such as government incentives for companies that contribute to scholarship funds. And thanks to generous donors, HSLDA has been able to give away over $15 million in Compassion Grants to individual families and groups.

However, we are convinced that ESAs and other tax-funded accounts will provide government officials with a reason to further regulate and oversee homeschooling.

The argument for enacting new restrictions could go (and has gone) something like this: Now that homeschooling families are receiving government money, the government needs to ensure they are spending that money responsibly.

On those grounds, they could enact regulations and restrictions that could reverse the trend toward homeschool freedom that has been achieved in recent decades.

We’re already seeing this happen in a very public way. Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs lamented her state’s status as the first to establish ESAs for all families. Hobbs insisted that the funding program “lacks accountability and will likely bankrupt this state.”

The slew of education funding laws enacted this year has opened many doors to cries for further regulation. More on that below.

Victory and defeat: ESA bills in 2023

First, let’s look at what happened with education funding in some key states in 2023.

>> Arkansas and Utah established ESAs that are available to all students, regardless of the type of schooling they choose.

>> Iowa and Florida created programs that provide funding for private school students, but not homeschool students. In Florida, students can be educated at home under an ESA, but this is now a different legal category than that of a home education program. (Thanks in large part to homeschool advocates.)

>> Virginia, Idaho, Missouri, and Maine also moved to establish ESAs that would have been available to all students, regardless of the type of schooling they choose. But homeschool advocates opposed the bills, and they didn’t pass.

>> Oklahoma created a new tax credit for families whose children attend private school or are homeschooled. HSLDA has long supported tax credits for homeschooling, but Oklahoma’s measure stirred controversy within the state because its tax credit is refundable. That’s because if the credit reduces a family’s tax burden below zero, the family would receive the remainder of the credit as a cash payment from the government. In this circumstance, the money goes beyond a tax break to direct payments, which could open the door to more regulation.

>> In October, North Carolina passed legislation as part of the state budget bill that greatly expands the Opportunity Scholarship. This program provides funds that families may spend on private school tuition, transportation, equipment, and related expenses from kindergarten through 12th grade. The new law removes the income cap for families to receive the scholarship, though the amount that families receive still varies according to income. The program is not open to homeschool families.

>> A few other states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas, were considering various types of funding for school choice late in 2023.

ESAs before 2023

Several other states already had ESA programs on the books, and some of them already place special requirements on homeschooling families who participate.

>> Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina, and Tennessee restrict their ESAs to certain categories of participants, including students with special needs, families with limited income, or both. Many of them also require students to have individualized education programs, which are obtained through the public school system. These programs are not really intended for homeschooling families.

>> North Carolina’s ESA for students with disabilities remains unchanged. Homeschooling families may apply for funds through this program, but they must first work with the public school system to obtain an individualized education program for their students.

>> New Hampshire established an ESA program in 2021. Families must meet certain income thresholds when they first apply, and they must operate under a separate statute from the state’s homeschool law. This means they have to meet a few extra requirements not imposed on other homeschooling families.

Is the backlash to homeschooling beginning?

We’re already seeing movement across states with new ESA measures to further regulate homeschooling. Let’s get back to our examples. Consider the following developments:

>> In New Hampshire, a state senator introduced legislation that would have required students to attend public school for at least a year before applying to receive ESA funding. Some advocates saw the move as an attempt to undermine private and homeschool education, which the state senator called “siloed and unregulated institutions of indoctrination.” The bill died before any action by HSLDA’s members was needed.

>> The day after Arkansas enacted its ESA program, a state representative introduced a bill that would have required all homeschooling families to test their children annually (if they accepted state funding). HSLDA tracked the bill, which died before any action was needed. It’s also noteworthy that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette suggested that if homeschoolers in their state accept government funds, they should be required to take the same standardized tests that public school students take—at the same time, and possibly at the same facilities.

>> In Florida, an earlier version of the 2023 school choice bill proposed granting government funds to homeschooling families only under certain conditions. The enacted version provides funds to homeschoolers, but only if they are willing to put themselves in a separate legal category from traditional homeschoolers.

The earlier version’s conditions included making homeschoolers meet with choice navigators—private or professional individuals who would become quasi-government actors. They would be tasked with advising parents regarding education decisions and providing an independent opinion when it came time to evaluate students. The navigators would also be empowered to affirm or reject a parent’s assessment of their student’s performance. The navigators were also supposed to send standardized test scores of all homeschool students to researchers at Florida State University.

All of these conditions would have diminished the freedom of homeschooling parents to personalize their child’s education according to individual needs.

Freedom is the best policy

To reiterate: Over the past 40 years, as HSLDA has worked with hundreds of thousands of homeschooling families, we have observed that removing barriers has helped children and families thrive. We are concerned that government funds for homeschooling will be followed by restrictions that threaten the principles that make homeschooling successful.

Foremost among these principles is freedom.

Parents know their children best and have the greatest interest in seeing them succeed. It stands to reason that homeschooling parents should enjoy the greatest possible freedom to craft personalized programs designed to meet the needs and interests of their individual students.

This flexibility empowers parents to innovate in ways that help their children thrive.

For example, one Virginia family homeschooled their son after he was diagnosed with an immune system disorder. Their focus on outdoor learning not only helped him overcome his health struggles but inspired him to pursue international adventures such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. He’s now studying for a career in forestry.

Homeschooling allows parents to accommodate students who learn differently and at different speeds. We recently featured the story of a New Mexico student who finished school early to launch a professional career at age 17. We also helped a Kentucky family whose teen is taking a little longer to graduate to ensure he’ll be ready for his chosen vocation—repairing cars and trucks, particularly antiques.

Families who homeschool are also able to band together to share resources and offer mutual support. Earlier this year, for example, HSLDA took part in a new conference aimed at meeting the specific needs of Black homeschoolers in the Atlanta area.

Motivated by love

Homeschooling has been helping children flourish for decades—not because of government intervention, but in spite of it.

“The struggle for homeschool freedom has been one of rolling back needless government intrusion, not one of seeking government help,” HSLDA President Jim Mason said in a 2016 essay titled “The Civic Virtue of Home Education.”

For this very reason, Mason added, homeschoolers should look at government funding programs—and their inevitable rules for how this taxpayer-generated money may be accessed and spent—as a hindrance rather than a help.

“There is something truly lovely,” he said, “in seeing how a free people have built a radical counterculture, motivated by nothing less than the love of their own children, mandated by nothing more than their own conscience, and supported by nothing more than their own ingenuity and community.”

Key Terms

Public funding for school choice

Any kind of program that provides public money to help families pay for private school or homeschool expenses.

Education Savings Accounts

A program that provides government money to families (up to a certain amount) to spend on educational expenses. Unlike Health Savings Accounts, which are tax shelters where individuals can place a certain amount of their own money, ESAs are government funds deposited into an account that parents can use for educational expenses.

Education Tax Credits

A tax credit is an amount that you subtract from the tax you owe—in other words, keeping more of your own money. (Not all tax credit bills are created equally and we evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.)

Refundable Tax Credits

This version allows families to request a cash payment from the government if the credit reduces the amount of income tax they owe to below zero.

Dave Dentel

Newsletter Editor/Staff Writer

Dave Dentel writes and edits content for HSLDA’s website. He especially enjoys getting to interview bright, articulate homeschooled students.