The Leaflet: Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived

Published June 28, 2017

A 2012 report by EdChoice called education savings accounts (ESA) the “most innovative school choice option on the market today,” and highlighted how ESAs are helping to fulfill Milton Friedman’s vision for school choice in the 21st century. At the time, only Arizona had implemented an ESA program, which was limited to only a few groups of students. Five years since that report was published, Arizona has expanded its program to provide universal eligibility by 2021, and other ESA programs have passed in Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee and have been proposed in dozens of other states as well.

One argument against programs allowing private-school choice is the question of their constitutionality, especially in states that have adopted Blaine amendments. States with these anti-Catholic provisions in their constitutions explicitly restrict public dollars from going to religious schools, thereby restricting the expansion of private-school choice.

All that could soon change, however. This week, in a monumental decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church’s right to apply for publicly available funds, despite the school’s religious affiliation and the state’s Blaine amendment, throwing into question the validity of Blaine amendments throughout the country.

In a press release announcing the Court’s decision, Heartland Senior Fellow Robert G. Holland said, “It might take one more Supreme Court decision to deliver a knockout blow to the bigoted anti-Catholic Blaine amendments of the 19th century, which still persist in two-thirds of state constitutions, and thereby to ensure that parents may use vouchers or ESAs in schools they deem best for their children.”

The ruling opens the door for many more states to implement private-school choice programs with less fear of state or federal courts shutting them down. A new Heartland Policy Brief by Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal education savings account programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the five ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

Benson concludes, “ESA programs are not a silver-bullet solution to every problem plaguing the nation’s school system, but they certainly allow families much greater opportunities to meet each child’s unique education needs. The goal of public education today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school.”

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