Are ESAs the future of school choice?

Amelia Hamilton
Posted: May 06, 2016 3:13 PM
Are ESAs the future of school choice?

The American Enterprise Institute argues in a recent story that Education Savings Accounts are the next step in school choice.

ESA programs allocate per-pupil state funding to families rather than to schools, allowing families to spend these funds on the options they decide.

“Instead of choosing between schools,” the AEI story says, “parents with ESAs can tailor their children’s education, perhaps combining online classes in algebra, Mandarin classes from a university, tutoring in history, STEM classes from a community college, and other services in ways that would be impossible without ESAs.”

This level of empowerment makes ESAs both popular and controversial. An ESA program was just introduced in the Delaware Legislature this week, but tabled after a heated debate.

“We really need to make sure parents have access to their very best education options,” said Rep. Deborah Hudson, R-Fairthorne, the bill’s co-sponsor. “We really don’t have the fullest extent of choice. And that’s what this bill is about today.”

The opposition argued that choice would weaken public schools. “We have concerns about any initiative that would funnel public dollars away from our public schools,” wrote Alison May, spokesperson for the Delaware Department of Education.

Shutterstock photo

EDUCATION PIGGIE: Education Savings Accounts could be the future of school choice, giving parents more control on where their children’s education dollars go.

These sentiments were echoed in Iowa’s ESA debate. “It will help families maybe otherwise that wouldn’t be able to pay for the tuition aspect of it to make that choice that they can attend a private school,” says Tony Adams, K-12 administrator at Newman Catholic Schools.

“Well, I see it as depleting funds for public education. For those…school systems, it would be a hardship because that money that they were counting on from their school would be gone,” says State Rep. Sharon Steckman.

Lawsuits against ESAs tend to argue they are unconstitutional given that some of these funds could be used for religious education. The suits cite the so-called Blaine Amendments, which prevent public funding for religious institutions.

“Activist groups are treating religious schools and the students who choose to attend them like second-class citizens,” said Diana Verm, legal counsel of the Becket Fund. “It is deplorable to see a discriminatory 19th century law being used to prevent children from access to quality education simply because the school may have religious ties.”

Studies have shown that low-income families have the most to gain from ESA programs. While those with financial means have always been able to exercise school choice, these accounts enable poorer residents to choose where their children’s education dollars go.