Research & Commentary: Texas Education Savings Accounts

Published October 21, 2016

Support for the creation of education savings accounts (ESA) is growing in Texas, and many will be pushing for the state’s first ESA program in 2017. ESAs give parents the option to use state education funds that would have otherwise gone toward sending their children to a traditional public school. ESA funds can be used to help pay for tuition and fees at a private school or to purchase textbooks, online education programs, or private tutoring services.

“ESAs are about empowering parents and improving the range of educational options for children,” Renee Porter, executive director of Choice Matterstold The Heartland Institute’s School Reform News. “All children are different and learn differently. Some children have disabilities that require special attention. Other children are so advanced that their time in the classroom isn’t really benefitting them. It’s unrealistic, and quite frankly unfair, to expect every public school to provide for the exact needs of every student. That’s why it’s important to give parents options like charter schools, private schools, and virtual schools.”

The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) has been publishing some important work lately on what an ESA program could do for Texas children. TPPF argues establishing a universal ESA would allow an additional 11,800 students currently in high school or entering high school within the next year to graduate. Additionally, TPPF says an ESA program would improve college readiness among Texas high school graduates, increase the competitiveness of the state’s public schools, and provide other significant benefits for Texas students, such as increased test scores and graduation rates.

The latest statewide survey on school choice options, published in April 2013 by EdChoice, found 61 percent of the 613 respondents support the establishment of an ESA program in their state. This includes 61 percent of Republican voters, 65 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Independents, 54 percent of black voters, and 72 percent of Latino voters.

Only 44 percent of Texas 4th graders and 32 percent of 8th graders tested “proficient” in math on the 2015 National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) test, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Only 31 percent of 4th graders and 28 percent of 8th graders tested proficient in reading. These results show Texas’ public school system is failing to educate roughly seven out of ten 4th grade and 8th grade students to a proficient level in reading and mathematics.

Texas’ sub-standard performance on NAEP underscores the desperate need for the state to expand school choice opportunities far beyond what is currently available. Too many public schools in the Lone Star State are failing to adequately prepare students for productive lives. Parents should be allowed to choose the schools their children attend and should not be penalized financially if that choice is a private religious or secular school.

The overwhelming majority of the available empirical evidence makes it clear educational choice offers families equal access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires – and does so at a lower cost – while simultaneously benefitting public school students. 

Currently, private education choice in the Lone Star State is literally nonexistent. The creation of a universal ESA bill similar to the one passed in Nevada in 2015 would go a long way toward remedying Texas’ dismal record of failing to educate its children. Educational choice programs can give all families a greater opportunity to meet each child’s unique education needs. The goal should be to allow every parent to choose, require every school to compete, and give every child an opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information about education savings accounts and school choice.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Research & Commentary: What the Empirical Research Says on Education Choice–commentary-what-the-empirical-research-says-on-education-choice?source=policybot
In this Research & Commentary, Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson highlights the publication of the fourth edition of A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, authored by Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The 100 empirical studies examined within the report are centered around five key topic areas: The “academic outcomes of choice participants,” the “academic outcomes of public schools,” the fiscal “impact on taxpayers and public schools,” school choice programs’ impact on the “racial segregation [of] schools,” and their impact on the “civic values and practices” of participants. Of the 100 studies, only three found any negative effects for students.

Boosting Graduation Rates in Texas Using Education Savings Accounts
This report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims low-income and minority students would experience the largest graduation rate increases as a result of the greater access to private schools provided by education choice programs, thereby reducing inequality in the Lone Star State.

The Achilles Heel of Texas: Improving College Eligibility Rates through K–12 Education Savings Accounts
In this report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), TPPF researchers argue only a minority of Texas students is college ready and that public schools would improve and students would excel with the creation of an educational savings account program similar to the one recently passed in Nevada.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

Texas K-12 and School Choice Survey
This survey, commissioned by EdChoice and conducted by Braun Research, measures Texas registered voters’ familiarity and views on a range of K–12 education topics and school choice reforms.

The Legal Landscape of Parental-Choice Policy
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris cleared away the most significant obstacle to the expansion of private school choice programs by ruling the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not preclude faith-based schools from participating in private school choice programs. These programs raise other important legal questions, which fall into four categories: the scope of students’ rights to an education and parents’ rights to choose their children’s schools; state constitutional obstacles to private school choice; the effect of laws governing racial integration and the inclusion of disabled students; and the religious liberty implications of faith-based schools participating in such programs. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) writes the lack of clarity on these questions poses challenges, but AEI also says these questions create opportunities for proponents of private school choice to scale up existing programs and expand program options.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the Washington, DC program, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.

How School Choice Can Create Jobs
Examining five South Carolina counties, Sven R. Larson found school choice programs were associated with gains of up to 25 percent in youth self-employment. Larson writes, “School Choice raises academic achievement and reduces the problems and costs associated with high school dropouts. But it also has a decisively positive impact on youth entrepreneurship and could provide a critical boost for the economies of poor, rural counties.”


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

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