Education Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, are special accounts managed by families used exclusively for the educational benefit of their child. Through ESAs, parents can access a portion of the funding that the state had allocated for their child and use it to cover the cost of several educational expenses, including tuition at the school of their choice.
In many areas of our lives, customization has become the centerpiece of the way we interact with the world. From the way we use our smartphone to our favorite streaming service, customization is at the heart of how we interact with today’s technology. In many cases, the capacity to access content or a service tailored around our specific needs has allowed us to better leverage our creativity and talents.
However, when it comes to K-12 education, customization is virtually absent, and families are forced to choose among a very limited number of options that often don’t fit their children’s educational needs.
ESAs can change this. Unlike school vouchers, ESA spending can be completely customized, so that each student’s unique needs can be met. Through ESAs, families can direct their child’s funding to the schools, courses, programs and services of their choice. Families are also able to save unused funds for future K-12 and higher education expenses.
Myths Versus Facts
- Myth: ESAs will hurt public schools. Not at all. ESAs help children by empowering parents to customize their education. Public schools will remain an option for parents when ESAs are signed into law. Research shows ESAs will positively impact academic performance in public schools. Of the 26 studies that examine the competitive effects of school choice programs on public schools, 24 found positive effects, one saw no visible effect and one found some negative effects for some kids.
- Myth: ESAs drain funding from public schools. It is also a myth that ESAs will “drain funding” from traditional schools. Here’s why: In general, participating ESA families receive the average state funding per pupil—deducted from the local district’s state education subsidies—as a grant in an account supervised by the Treasury Department. Local education dollars remain in the district, allowing the district to increase per-student expenditures for students who remain in public schools. These leftover funds more than compensate for a school district’s fixed costs.
- Myth: ESAs are unconstitutional because they fund private and religious schools. ESAs are perfectly constitutional because they provide funds to parents, not schools. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harristhat because school choice programs provide funding to parents—not to schools—these programs are neutral with respect to religion and do not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. In fact, ESAs were ruled constitutional by Arizona’s Supreme Court in 2014 and Nevada’s Supreme Court in 2016. To reiterate: these parent-directed accounts may be spent on a variety of educational services, not merely religious schools.
- Myth: ESAs are school vouchers. Vouchers may only be spent on private school tuition. ESAs, on the other hand, provide families with a restricted-use account to create a customized educational program. Unlike vouchers, unused ESA funds roll over from one year to the next.
- Myth: Parents don’t want ESAs. Although ESAs are a new policy innovation, they are succeeding at satisfying parents. For instance, take Arizona, home of the first ESA program. Per a study from EdChoice, all of the parents surveyed were at least somewhat satisfied with their ESAs, while 71 percent of parents described themselves as “very satisfied.” What’s more, half of the same parents reported dissatisfaction with their public school in the preceding year. In Mississippi, a survey found more than nine out of ten parents satisfied with the ESA program, including 63 percent who were “very satisfied.” Among these respondents, fewer than three in ten parents were satisfied with their previous public school.
- Myth: ESAs will not provide accountability to taxpayers. We know that standardized tests scores are not always an accurate indicator of student achievement because they ignore the totality of a student’s academic, social, and mental development. School accountability is more complex than a matter of test scores. For many families, educational opportunity is an outlet to satisfy parents and help children grow in ways that cannot always be measured on standardized tests. Giving parents a say in how and where their children are educated, with ESAs, gives families the means and opportunity to remove their children from an educational environment that is not meeting their unique needs and place them elsewhere. This is a level of accountability that can only be achieved by empowering families with the ability to customize the education of their children—and cannot be matched by any law or standardized test.