I really hate to disagree with people that I both like and have tremendous respect for, but a new voucher program that passed recently in Arizona has been getting a lot of attention, and a few points need to be addressed.
Unfortunately, as Andrew Coulson has noted before, these ESAs retain the most important problems of regular voucher programs and add new ones as well:
- This is still a third-party-payer system that uses government funds. These ESAs are not like HSAs. HSAs and education savings programs like Coverdell accounts are filled by the person who earned the money in the first place. This is a government education account filled with public funds, accessible to eligible families.
- If the ultimate goal for ESA proponents is to have broad-based choice, why not let families who can afford it pay for education out of their earnings? Tax credits can accomplish this. ESAs make all families dependent on government funds sitting in accounts that the government controls.
- Because these are still government funds, the legal threats to vouchers will not be significantly mitigated. Each ruling striking down vouchers, including in Arizona, has relied on the fact that government funds carry restrictions on their use in education – even if there is an intervening choice on the part of parents. The Arizona program is unlikely to survive another challenge.
- Because these are still government funds, they are more likely than credits to bring serious new regulatory burdens. Andrew Coulson’s historical evidence and recent statistical analysis of existing credit and voucher programs demonstrates what common-sense tells us: government money brings regulations. Citizens and politicians think that all institutions taking government funds should be accountable to the government, not just parents. Education tax credits provide for direct accountability to both parents and the taxpayers who earned the funds being expended. Educational freedom is more easily retained within a fully civil society system which doesn’t require government action or legislation to address every problem.
- Only tax credits respect the values and preferences of the taxpayers who earned the money being spent on education. ESAs still compel all taxpayers to support, in some small measure, the educational choices of all families. This compelled support increases the pressure to regulate and restrict choices. Interest groups and citizens attempt to ensure that their tax dollars are spent according to their values and preferences, using the only means possible in the public sphere: rules and regulations. Credits confer on each taxpayer the means to affirmatively support the kinds of education with which they are comfortable.
- Long-term complications and problems are likely to arise with the use of third-party ESAs. Because unused funds revert at some point to the state (as they are not personal savings), individuals will not manage the accounts as they would HSAs and actual education savings accounts. Many families will likely spend out each year rather than shopping for value as promoters of HSAs suggest will occur. Alternatively, if some families do save excess funds from early years, they will likely over-consume in late high school or college because the money will otherwise revert to the state. It is not difficult to imagine all manner of problems this scenario could produce, from simple waste to various kickback schemes through which a person can cash out their government education accounts. Management of fraud and abuse will be extremely difficult in a large-scale, fully developed ESA system that relies on government, third-party funding.