By Blake Plante (PO ’18)
“Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are the new frontier in school choice”, says Nat Malkus as he introduces Jeb Bush at the American Enterprise Institute on Friday, January 26th.
General disillusionment with the American K-12 system (according to Gallup’s most recent poll, dissatisfaction with nationwide K-12 schools is at 53%) is manifesting itself in growing availability of alternative education models. Education Savings Accounts favor these alternative models by funding families who choose to deviate from the public school model. ESAs are a mechanism for educational choice that allow parents to withdraw their children partially or entirely from public schools. States will take the funds originally allocated toward those students from school’s state funding, and instead give the money to the parents. Parents can then put the money toward private school, or use it to fund homeschooling activities.
There has been growth in ESAs over the last few years, and with unapologetic support from the current administration and Betsy DeVos, ESAs are on the path to keep growing. Lawmakers have enacted ESAs in six states: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Nevada, and North Carolina, and an ESAs bill passed in New Hampshire in January 2018.
Florida Governor and 2016 GOP Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush derides institutionalized education, saying that it is made for an “average” that does not exist. “Everybody is different… which makes us special and unique,” he asserts. “That is why we need to focus on school choice.” By choice, Bush is referring to choice for the parent—not, necessarily, choice on the part of the child. Bush says that the new school system should be “parent-driven” and “customizable.” “Parents,” he says, “are the best school-district.”
As a student who was homeschooled and went to charter schools until college, ESAs sound like a dream come true. State-funding for alternative, customizable education models could mean that many families will have unique educational opportunities tailored to the needs of each student. K-12 education could begin to look less like sitting in chairs for five days a week and more like a “college course-load” with the freedom it entails, suggests Bush. However, there are several meritable concerns for such a system.
It becomes clear what kind of audience Bush has in mind when he explains how he envisions ESAs in action. “With the right policies in place—the most open system… perhaps a mom could pick a half-day of a traditional public school or a charter school, take an AP Calculus course that’s not available in that classroom setting online from a Florida virtual school… take an online music class from Julliard, and a Spanish course with a local retired school-teacher.”
Detractors who criticize the policy suggest that it primarily benefits the affluent. Indeed, in practice, this seems to be true. According to analysis conducted by Arizona Republic, last year in Arizona, “more than 75% of the money pulled out of public schools for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program came from districts with an ‘A’ or ‘B’ rating… By contrast, only 4% of the money came from school districts rated ‘D’ or lower.” As it appears that ESAs are being used by few students in financially disadvantaged areas, the policy may not be substantially subtracting from existing funding for these students’ education. Rather, a primary result of ESAs has been to subsidize students in affluent families to go to private schools.
After his remarks and interview with Nat Malkus, Bush disappeared and a panel took his place with prepared remarks. During the three minutes allocated for questions, an undergraduate student asked the panel how parents working 2-3 jobs might make time to plan and facilitate their children’s education on an ESA. The panel did not answer this question. Former Secretary of Education for Virginia and American Enterprise Institute Resident Fellow Gerard Robinson afterward suggested that parents spread thin have “found a way.”
Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation and panelist, explained that Florida’s ESA program was implemented in 2014. Four years later, over 10,000 kids are on ESAs through the Gardiner Scholarship program. For 40% of these kids, parents are using the funds to “customize” their education, uniquely veering from the regular public-private-charter paths. Of those 40% who are customizing, “half of them do not set foot in a brick and mortar school at all.” Families are using the funds to hire tutors, get textbooks, take online courses, etc.
The rise of ESAs highlights America’s distrust of the public education system, and its increasing preference for choice in education. ESAs may be significantly misused and somewhat inaccessible. They empower new and innovative experiments in education, some of which may be successful, and some of which may not. The dividing question remains: should Americans support public education reform, or support federal funding to take education into their own hands?