Janresseger: Education Savings Accounts: Proponents Claim Educational Choice Beats Mere School Choice

The National Education Policy Center’s new brief, The State of Education Savings Account Programs in the United States, traces the history of school vouchers, explains how Education Savings Account vouchers work, identifies their problems and injustices; and accomplishes all this in a readable and interesting way.

The authors, for example, help us learn about Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) from this quote taken from published promotional materials from supporters who glorify ESAs and adore school choice. The sales pitch is notable for distinguishing “educational” choice from mere, old-fashioned “school” choice: “For more than two decades, school choice had been just that—school choice. In a potentially profound development, ESAs focus on educational choice and upend many assumptions that have framed education policy issues… ESAs give families almost unfettered control over the public funds allocated for their child’s education. With an ESA, parents are able to customize their child’s education by combining traditional schools, homeschooling, and different education providers, including tutors, therapists, online and blended models.” The only thing parents cannot do with an Education Savings Account is have their child enrolled in a public school at the same time they are using their publicly funded debit card to shop for all these other services.

You may have noticed that the blurb’s pitch for Education Savings Accounts includes a one-sentence definition of how educational school choice conflicts with the very notion of public education: “ESAs give families almost unfettered control over the public funds allocated for their child’s education.” After all, public schools have been defined historically not merely as enhancing the preferences of individuals but also as serving the public good. The most serious problem with educational choice and privatization is that individuals who choose the best education they can get for their own children too frequently forget about the needs and rights of other people’s children. History tells us this is so.

NEPC’s brief summarizes the history of Education Savings Account programs, along with problems of accountability, misuse of funds, issues of access, and ESAs’ effects on education more broadly—segregation and stratification, and the financial implications for public schools and for the poorest families.

While U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has relentlessly promoted the privatization of schools, she has not, so far, been able to accomplish her goal with any large federal program. The movement to privatize public education centers in state government, where Education Savings Accounts get around the problem of separation of church and state in a number of states whose constitutions were amended in the nineteenth century to prohibit using state funds to support religious activities.

What is the current status of Education Savings Accounts? “As of December 2017, a total of six states have passed ESA legislation. The first program was adopted in Arizona in 2011.  Florida followed in 2014, and then three states—Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada—passed legislation in 2015. The newest ESA program was adopted by North Carolina in 2017.  Efforts to expand ESAs continue. In addition to North Carolina, 13 states introduced legislation proposing ESA programs within the past two years (2016 and 2017): Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, and Texas.”

Here is a worrisome trend: Once Education Savings Accounts have been approved by a state, future legislators have tended pass laws to ease the original limits on the program’s size: “Arizona initially adopted a targeted model, but the legislature in 2017 expanded the model to create a universal program by 2020, although enrollment is initially capped at about 30,000.  This ‘foot in the door’ expansion approach is common with voucher legislation, which tends to start off with enrollment caps and with benefits directed toward a sympathetic subgroup of students.”  In Arizona, however, “The 2017 expansion into a universal program… faced immediate and significant public resistance. The Save Our Schools grassroots campaign has apparently collected enough signatures to put the issue on the November 2018 ballot.”

NEPC’s brief summarizes legal cases that have been filed to protect public school funding and prohibit Education Savings Account programs.  Litigation has stopped Nevada’s program for now. The state’s supreme court found the funding of the program (not the idea of ESAs itself) unconstitutional: “The court determined that since the legislature did not appropriate any funds for the education savings accounts, the funneling of money appropriated for K-12 public education to the education savings accounts is unconstitutional. In other words, the monies appropriated for public education cannot be used to fund the ESA program.”

Among the other problems the brief addresses is that Education Savings Accounts exacerbate educational inequality, because the publicly funded debit card is usually not enough to cover the educational services children may need. “These concerns are supported by an analysis of Nevada applicant zip codes, aggregated by school district and matched to median income, (which) shows most students applying for ESAs are from more affluent families.  Applications from households with incomes above $100,000 were far more likely to enroll in an ESA program than households with incomes below $25,000.”

The authors of NEPC’s brief worry about the financial implications for the public schools: “During the 2015-16 school year, for example, the relatively small Arizona program drew $20.6 million from the public schools.”  The authors also lament the overall absence of public accountability in any of the existing Education Savings Account programs: “For example, the laws contain no requirements regarding curriculum, teacher qualifications, or admission. Instead, parents are placed in the role of consumers who are authorized to purchase whatever educational programming they wish within broad parameters and with virtually no legislative restrictions to safeguard educational quality… This situation reflects proponents’ arguments for a free-market definition of accountability. That is, parents can hold schools accountable by ‘voting with their feet’—by declining to work with poor-quality vendors; market forces will thereby ensure quality and eliminate poor programs.”  The brief’s authors are skeptical: “With so few restrictions on spending, it is perhaps not surprising that Arizona’s first audit uncovered examples of ESA funds being used to purchase big-screen televisions, snow globes, and sock monkeys.  Parents also failed to turn in required accounting… To their credit, some pro-ESA advocacy organizations have acknowledged the problem and called for stricter accountability.”

Placing parents in the role of liberated consumers of educational services perfectly describes the educational philosophy of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who scoffs at the importance of an education system and instead speaks of wanting parents to shop for schools.  It is therefore not surprising that, as the brief’s authors explain, “The most vocal advocates of ESAs include conservative and libertarian organizations such as the Cato Institute, the American Federation for Children (founded and formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos), the American Legislative Exchange Council, and EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.”

One of these organizations deserves to be highlighted here: The American Legislative Exchange Council has model bills for Education Savings Accounts on the shelf, ready to be adapted for introduction in any state legislature. In his recent book, The One Percent Solution, economist Gordon Lafer warns about the reach of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as it promotes the proliferation of programs like Education Savings Accounts across the 50 state legislatures: “ALEC, the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level, brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation… According to the group’s promotional materials, it convenes bill-drafting committees—often at posh resorts—in which ‘both corporations and legislators have a voice and a vote in shaping policy.’ Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.”  (p. 13)

Here, posted at ALEC’s website, is a 2016 bill, the Education Savings Account Act. If your own legislature is considering Education Savings Accounts, the bill may resemble ALEC’s off-the-shelf model.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...