Brief Examines the Research on Education Savings Accounts, the Latest Form of Private-School Vouchers

BOULDER, CO (January 23, 2018) – Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are a new form of government subsidy for private education, and they are arguably the most strongly promoted approach by voucher advocates. Parents are provided a set sum, often in the form of a debit account, which they can use for a variety of educational services including private school tuition and fees, online courses, extracurricular activities and private tutoring. Students enrolled in an ESA program are not allowed to concurrently attend a public school.

A new brief released today by the National Education Policy Center examines this emerging policy, considering similarities and differences with conventional voucher approaches, and examining the legal issues that the policy raises.

Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos of Arizona State University and William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner of the University of Colorado Boulder authored the brief, titled The State of Education Savings Account Programs in the United States.

During the 2017 legislative session, 13 states introduced ESA bills, although only one bill ultimately became law (in North Carolina). Through December 2017, however, ESA laws had been enacted in six states (Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Nevada and North Carolina). In New Hampshire, an ESA bill is currently making its way toward passage.

Major concerns raised about ESA programs include the lack of accountability structures, their potential effects on social and economic stratification in schools and society, and their fiscal impact on school districts and states. But research, and even non-empirical analyses, regarding ESA policies has been very limited. In fact, the majority of currently available ESA literature has been provided by conservative think tanks, whose explicit goal is to advance free-market school choice reform. It is this think-tank advocacy that has driven the adoption and expansion of ESAs thus far.

While research and evaluation efforts should be stepped up, such efforts will face considerable obstacles. ESA programs embrace privatization and non-transparency by design. Accountability systems are absent, and data are limited; the lack of data and reporting will impede research on how these policies affect students, schools, and states.

The best evidence about the likely academic outcomes of ESAs is therefore found in the research on conventional voucher programs. Overall, this voucher literature raises serious questions about the quality of the voucher-funded private-school education, with recent studies for four different states suggesting that students using vouchers do worse than they would have done had they remained in their public schools. Voucher research also points to problems with accountability, access, and segregation.

Legal challenges to ESAs have met with only limited success. The plaintiffs in three cases, from Arizona, Florida and Nevada, have contended that the laws violate provisions in those states’ constitutions. The challenge to Arizona’s law was unsuccessful; it was found to be constitutional. The challenge in Florida was dismissed because the plaintiffs lacked legal standing, meaning that the court never considered the merits of the constitutional arguments. The Nevada lawsuit was successful, but the plaintiffs lost on the key constitutional argument of whether using taxpayer money for private education was constitutional. Instead, the plaintiffs won because money designated for public education could not be used to fund the ESA program.

When considering ESAs, policymakers from all perspectives must carefully weigh the evidence regarding impact on educational goals. Beyond the questions about academic outcomes, questions they should ask include:

  • Will the program increase or decrease democratic participation and equality?
  • Will the program increase or decrease segregation by race, income, disability, or otherwise affect specific groups of students?
  • Will the rights of children with special needs be protected?
  • Will the outcome entangle church and state as a policy matter, even beyond legal concerns?
  • Will the program result in the state funding two parallel systems, raising efficiency concerns? Will those systems be separate and unequal, sparking new legal challenges?
  • How will accountability be ensured? How will malfeasance be monitored and controlled?

In light of the nearly complete lack of information on what effects existing ESA programs are having, it is recommended that:

  • Policymakers should be wary of adopting or expanding an ESA program in light of the lack of any empirical evidence to support them and in light of their potential adverse effects.
  • Legislatures in states with existing ESA programs should mandate and fund comprehensive program evaluation systems to determine their programs’ impact on students, families, schools, districts and states.
  • Legislatures designing new programs should routinely include mandated and funded comprehensive evaluation systems.

Find The State of Education Savings Account Programs in the United States, by Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos, William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner, at: http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/ESAs

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (greatlakescenter.org).

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: http://nepc.colorado.edu