Trailblazing School Choice’s Newest Frontier

Trailblazing School Choice’s Newest Frontier
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"Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice." Nat Malkus, Adam Peshek and Gerard Robinson. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

For supporters of school choice as well as those intrigued by its merits, education savings accounts (ESAs) are widely regarded as the preferred choice mechanism of the future.

This attitude presaged last month’s national attention – and disappointment within circles where policy models to advance educational freedom are celebrated – in Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval’s budget compromise that diverted choice dollars away from the universal ESA model he authored and used them to support scholarship tax credits instead.

This growing interest in ESAs led to the publication of this definitive and wide-ranging collection of essays titled "Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice," which is edited by Nat Malkus, Adam Peshek and Gerard Robinson and contains works by some of the nation’s prominent authorities on school choice. 

Education savings accounts are described as an account-based form of parental choice in education, which allows families to place a student’s educational funds into a dedicated account. Dollars can be used to pay for a wide but restricted, range of services. These can include private school tuition, extra classes or online instructional programs, depending on legislative details. Other specifics, including the size of the account, what purchases are allowed, and who is eligible, are decided by the state where the program exists and usually in the statutory wording of the ESA law itself.

Today, ESA laws exist in six states: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee, with North Carolina approving its model, limited to students with special needs, earlier this summer. Florida has the largest program with nearly 7,500 students participating during the 2016-17 school year.

As with any public policy addressing education, specific details matter when it comes to program effectiveness, a fact which certainly holds true for ESAs. We have seen that the particulars of any school choice model can be expected to hold real consequences for student outcomes. This is true both for outcomes of students exercising the choice mechanisms themselves, as well as for longer-term impacts on outcomes for those remaining in the traditional public school systems within the same jurisdictions.

Several essays in this volume discuss potential benefits for families choosing to use ESA funds to purchase tuition in nonpublic schools as well as other customized educational services and products. EdTech guru John Bailey takes on pertinent questions concerning how those charged with administering ESA programs should approach quality control, offering protection for students and taxpayers alike, especially with the surge in new education software and application offerings.

“The challenge in the modern education system is to have a nimble, flexible system that can accommodate new providers and approaches while constantly monitoring for potential bad actors and low quality,” Bailey surmises. His swiftly-sweeping tour of the emergent state of today’s digital learning tools suggests that sliding scales of accountability, based on market-platforms for evaluation, may ultimately offer the best approach and the most effective balance for quality control without stifling innovative choices.

Robert Enlow and Michael Chartier of EdChoice contribute a chapter analyzing attitudes expressed in focus groups with public officials and policymakers. State legislators who have been in support of ESAs described the attractiveness of a model that empowers parents while also offering greater educational customization and flexibility. “While [supporters] are successfully shifting to parent-centric, not school-centric argument,” they note, opponents have been slow to update their talking points and are, “using the same standard arguments they’ve used for twenty years to defend the status quo.”

Co-editor Gerard Robinson of the American Enterprise Institute, whose essays and speeches often glean insights about education policy developments from historical context, suggests principles for designing regulatory models to provide useful guardrails that prevent abuse while avoiding excess bureaucracy or unnecessary hurdles. Robinson’s discussion of the challenges encountered when state departments of education undertake the regulation of ESAs provides an optimistic outlook for states like Nevada, which granted this authority to its State Treasurer’s office.

In the end, these programs are still evolving, notes the Charles Koch Institute’s senior research fellow Matthew Ladner. With time, experience will show what works best. Ladner seems to speak for all of his coauthors in expressing optimism that today’s handful of state experiments will ultimately produce a more powerful mechanism for delivering K-12 results, one far more mindful of equity issues than the public education system most Americans experience.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

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