Empowering parents in rural communities with Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) will give them the freedom to choose the best school for their children, according to Mandy Drogin, campaign director for Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Next Generation Initiative.

Drogin cites examples from other states that have introduced school choice programs and seen an improvement in education outcomes without any negative impact on public schools. While there is opposition from teachers’ unions, Drogin believes that every parent, regardless of where they live, deserves the freedom to choose the best education for their child.

“It’s about freedom,” she told Austin Journal. “It’s about the freedom for every single parent, including those in rural communities, to have the option to send their child to whatever school they need. [Parents] feel like no one is listening because the system is set up not to listen to parents. And that is all across Texas, including rural areas.”

The following is excerpts from Drogin’s interview with the Austin Journal regarding the topic of ESAs:

Are there examples in other states to show whether ESAs are improving educational opportunities? 

“I look to Florida quite a bit because they’ve had private options for nearly two decades at this point. We can see that in many of their local areas and their districts got better. But also, there’s not some mass exodus from the public school system. In Florida, they started small private schools for these special needs students. There’s so much data to show in rural communities that there is absolutely no harm to doing this. In Florida, they passed private school options back in the legislature in 2002 and implemented it by 2003. They focused on a low-income demographic, ranked 33rd in the nation. Within 16 years, by 2019, Florida’s low-income population ranks No. 1. It gave parents whose kids were struggling, falling behind the option to pick another school. It also made the public schools better. Within 16 years, it went from 33 to No. 1. Indiana had similar results when they introduced private school options. Their low-income kids ranked No. 22 in the nation. They were struggling. They went from 22 to third in the nation. Arizona also passed historic legislation in 2000 to ensure that every single parent has the choice of where to send their kids. Arkansas just passed a bill too.

“Parents need another choice, maybe their child is being bullied, maybe their child is just not acclimated for the school. Maybe they have special needs, maybe they’re homeschooling. We believe that every single parent or guardian of where you live in the great state of Texas should be empowered to know that they can make a choice. It shouldn’t just be parents that get lucky and get into a great charter school if that’s their choice. They should have the right to be able to select the school that will best serve their child. There is tons of data that shows all across the nation, even in rural areas, families benefit from choice.”

How would the ESA program work if the Texas legislature acts in the current session to make a program possible?

“There’s not a direct transfer of money. There are several great bills that are out there talking about how this works with a little bit of variance in the exact dollar amount. It’s usually based on the state average of maintenance and operations. There’s nothing that’s being taken away from our public school system. The money would come from appropriation. If a parent says, ‘I am dissatisfied, I need another choice,’ then they have the ability to apply for an education savings account and the money would be held at the comptroller level. Thirty states plus D.C. have this type of program. They ensure that it is an easy process and they have the right of parents to use the money held in the account. We can look at other states again, Florida is a good example. About 80% of their funds from parents were used to go to a private school. That’s pretty common in terms of private school choice and education freedom. The statewide average amount for a private school is about $10,300. This idea that private schools are out of reach, that they’re all some enormous $30,000 amount.

“If a parent wants an ESA, they apply for it and the money would go into the account, so the parent can direct it to a school. If I have $2,000 left over, I can still use that money on proof goods and services, which would include additional books or instructional supplies, new uniforms, tutoring or academic tests or therapy if needed. It could also be used for a fee for service transportation, if I needed help getting my child to school. It can be used for co-curricular activities. It allows parents to customize it.”

Is there any organized opposition to the concept of ESAs in Texas? 

“We don’t have unions in Texas. They call themselves different names. They call themselves federations. They want to control the money. They have 3 million teachers around the country. They spend tens of millions of dollars to control money flowing. They benefit from a monopolistic system that controls the flow of funds. If they waste the money, there’s no consequence. We have a system that’s set up to spend somewhere between 30-36% on our teachers in the classroom and the rest of the bloat and administrative costs and so many unnecessary wasteful expenses, and there is no recourse. The system is created to not respond to parents.”

Is there support for ESAs throughout Texas? 

“That’s what empowering parents with education savings accounts does, is ensure that every single parent, every parent, regardless of where you live, has the freedom that parents with resources and needs have. Every single parent has the freedom to select the school that best serves their child. That’s what America is about. That’s what Texas is about. We’re about saying everyone should have this freedom. Every child deserves an amazing education, and that’s why it supports and lifts up rural communities, urban communities, suburban communities. All of them are begging. They’re demanding to give the power back to the parents who know and love their child best to make the choice for the education that will best serve their individual child.”

Drogin is a prominent figure in education reform in Texas, with experience in managing grassroots, marketing, election, and legislative campaigns. She served as the state director for the American Federation for Children for nearly eight years, working directly within Texas campaigns. As the president of the Texas Federation for Children PAC, she oversaw significant wins in the 2020 and 2022 election seasons, electing numerous pro-school choice candidates to the Texas Legislature. Drogin has experience testifying at the State Capitol, working with a team to pass school choice legislation in 2021, and directing marketing campaigns to educate families on opportunities to access parent-directed education funding.

According to the Texan, ESAs are a type of school voucher program that provides families with public funds to use towards private school tuition or other educational expenses.

“Parents should not be helpless, they should be able to choose the education option that is best for their child,” Gov. Greg Abbott said at a recent rally for parent empowerment in Corpus Christi.

Abbott believes that expanding school choice options will help ensure that all students have access to high-quality education.

“The way to do that is with ESAs — Education Savings Accounts. We’ve seen them work in other states and we’ve seen them work in the State of Texas also,” he said.

The governor also emphasized that ESAs would be particularly beneficial for low-income families, who may not have the resources to access high-quality education otherwise.