‘The Future of School Choice Has Arrived,’ Report Says

Published July 25, 2017

‘The Way of the Future’

ESAs grant parents access to all or a portion of the funds allocated for a child’s public school education, to use on approved educational alternatives such as private school tuition, learning therapies, tutoring, and homeschooling textbooks.

“ESAs are ‘the way of the future’ because they provide greater freedom and flexibility for families and may be less vulnerable to state constitutional barriers than voucher programs,” policy analyst Tim Benson writes in “Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived,”

The report chronicles the history and development of ESAs, which have been implemented in some form in five states. “Although the idea has been around since the 1990s, ESAs are attracting increasing interest among school choice advocates and legislators who want every child to have a quality education,” Benson writes. “A 2012 report that helped popularize the program suggested ESAs are ‘the way of the future.’ That assessment has turned out to be prescient.”

The report was released in June by The Heartland Institute, which publishes School Reform News. The institute began advocating ESAs in 1992, submitting “a plan that included ‘Individual Education Accounts’ for a neighborhood in Chicago which could be used by parents to pay for private school tuition, tutors, curriculum coordinators, and other educational service providers,” the report states.

“Heartland has been promoting vouchers and ESAs for a very long time, since the early ’90s,” Benson told School Reform News. “Our president, Joseph Bast, has written books, booklets, and a ton of different proposals on this. There is a lot of Heartland literature on ESAs.”

‘Win-Win’ Reform

The EdChoice research organization released a report in 2016 summarizing the findings of 100 empirical studies of school choice programs. The research showed the effects of school choice programs to be, overall, “improved outcomes for choice students, improved outcomes for public school students, savings for taxpayers, improved school integration, and improved students’ civic values and practices.”

“The effects of these programs are positive, not just for the students who are taking advantage of them but also for the public school districts that these students are leaving, and for the students who are staying in the public schools,” Benson said. “They call it a ‘win-win’ solution, and that’s what it is.”

Catching On

Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee all offer some form of ESA program. Nevada’s program is in limbo at present because the state government failed to implement a legally allowable funding mechanism.

“Arizona is basically the granddaddy of all these ESA programs,” Benson said. “They had the first ESA program on the books, in 2011. At first it was only available to certain students with special needs, or students whose parents are active-duty military, that sort of thing. This year, they have finally opened up the program. It’s been so successful, every student will be eligible to participate by the 2020-21 school year.”

Nevada passed the nation’s first universal ESA bill in 2015, meaning nearly every child in the state is eligible to participate in the program. “The September 2016 decision by the Nevada Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of the state’s ESA program has spurred interest across in the country. Lawmakers in at least 16 states have introduced ESA legislation as of the end of April 2017. Far fewer voucher and tax-credit scholarship measures were introduced,” Benson writes.

Widespread Support

Research shows ESAs are hugely popular with families and lawmakers of diverse demographics.

“According to the latest national survey by EdChoice, 58 percent of parents of school-age children in the United States have a favorable opinion of ESA programs, specifically because ESAs offer them ‘more freedom and flexibility’ and give their children ‘access to schools having better academics,'” the report states. “Republican, Democrat, black, and Hispanic respondents all show majority support for ESA programs. Fifty-six percent of respondents also agreed ESAs should be universal, ‘available to all families, regardless of income and special needs.’ A survey of state legislators found similarly widespread support for ESAs, with 61 percent responding they were in favor of such programs, including 69 percent of legislators below the age of 54 and 71 percent of those with fewer than eight years of legislative experience.

“Generation X and Millennials—the generations today most likely to be parents of school-aged children and probably more likely to spend time thinking about education issues specifically because they affect their children—are the strongest supporters of ESAs,” Benson writes.

Courts Approve

Public education activist groups strongly oppose ESAs, arguing they divert funding from government schools and violate state constitutions’ Blaine amendments, which prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars to fund sectarian schools.

Courts have consistently dismissed that argument, the report states. “The specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools.… [An] ESA does not result in an appropriation of public money to encourage the preference of one religion over another, or religion per se over no religion. Any aid to religious schools would be a result of the genuine and independent private choices of the parents,” Benson quotes the court as stating.

Teresa Mull ([email protected]) is an education research fellow for The Heartland Institute and managing editor of School Reform News.


Tim Benson, “Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived,” The Heartland Institute, June 20, 2017: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/education-savings-accounts-the-future-of-school-choice-has-arrived