NEPC Review: The Way of the Future: Education Savings Accounts for Every American Family (September 2012)
The Friedman Foundation recently published a report promoting Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Like conventional vouchers, ESAs provide parents with public funds to purchase approved educational services, including private schools, online education, private tutors and higher education. The report presents ESAs as the optimal vehicle to bring Milton Friedman’s school voucher idea into the 21st century. While calling ESAs “the way of the future,” it lacks fundamental information to guide policymakers on their design, implementation, financing, and sustainability. These details ultimately determine the equity, efficiency and cost effectiveness of this proposal. For example, ESAs raise serious equity concerns: affluent parents could, if the policy allows, supplement their vouchers to purchase high quality educational services inaccessible to low-income families. This is indeed allowed in Arizona’s ESA program, the only existing ESA policy in the United States. Open to legal challenge, the report’s plan advocates using ESAs to sidestep prohibitions in state constitutions against supporting religious organizations with public funds. Unaddressed but relevant peer-reviewed evidence on school choice policies suggest that the claimed academic and economic benefits of ESAs are speculative and overstated. The absence of details and evidence in the report suggests it is ideological rhetoric rather than a workable policy proposal.