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State lawmakers are trying again to establish an Education Savings Account program for parents in North Dakota.

Last legislative session, Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, introduced a bill that would establish an Education Savings Account, or an ESA. Under the bill, the state treasurer would deposit funds into a special savings account from which parents can withdraw for private school tuition and other educational expenses.

Becker's bill received praise from parents and lawmakers who said ESAs would allow them to choose high-quality schools that best meet their children's needs. But opponents of ESAs worry that the program would adversely impact traditional schools and allow public money to go to religious schools.

A legislative committee revised Becker's bill into a study of the program's viability. The bill passed by a 72-17 vote in the House but failed by a vote of 14-32 in the Senate.

This latest bill — Senate Bill 2142 — marks the latest attempt to fund private school choice in North Dakota. The primary sponsor of the bill is Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, and its co-sponsors are Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, and Rep. Daniel Johnston, R-Kathryn.

Oley's bill had a hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. The bill would give 75 percent of the per pupil payment rate for school districts in North Dakota, which, under the current per pupil payment rate of $9,646, would equal roughly $2,500, to parents.

When asked by Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, about the fiscal impact of the program, Oley said he was unaware of how much it would cost.

"It's kind of a school choice issue with me," Oley said. "I just feel that people should be allowed (to go) wherever they want to take their kids."

Mark Jorritsma, executive director of Family Policy of North Dakota, spoke in support of the bill. The organization advocates for public policies that aligns with its "Christ-centered," pro-life mission.

"Education Savings Accounts are truly the gold standard when it comes to school choice," Jorritsma said, adding that ESAs would "allow parents to fully tailor their child's entire educational experience."

Jorritsma offered an amendment, which he said Oley supports, that would increase the percentage of the per pupil payment rate to school districts from 25 percent to 35 percent.

But the bill received push back on Wednesday from education groups in North Dakota, including North Dakota United and the North Dakota School Boards Association.

Aimee Copas, executive director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, said the bill would cost the state an "enormous amount of money." If students left public schools at a rate of 2 percent each year, this could cost the state about $84 million annually, she said.

"I am absolutely a proponent of school choice; parents can make that decision. I have a really difficult time, though, saying that the dollars that (legislators) so wisely invest in our public schools should be defrayed in an opportunity to further fund school choice in this manner," Copas said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, four states have Education Savings Account programs. Nevada left its controversial ESA program unfunded in 2017 after two years.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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Education and Health Reporter