How to Design an Education Savings Account

State legislatures across the nation are considering an innovative new education reform: education savings accounts. Hailed as “School Choice 2.0,” ESAs empower parents to customize their child’s education beyond the school walls—a development that could substantially alter the way students are educated. There is “no reason to expect that the future market will have the shape or form that our present market has,” observed Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman in a 2003 interview, “How do we know how education will develop? Why is it sensible for a child to get all his or her schooling in one brick building?”

Two states have already enacted ESA laws. In Arizona, parents of eligible students that opt out of their assigned district school can access 90% of what the state of Arizona would have spent on those students. The Arizona Department of Education deposits the funds directly into a privately managed bank account that parents can access through a restricted-use debit card. The parents can then spend the ESA funds on any qualifying education-related service or provider they choose. In the first year, eligibility was restricted to students with special needs. Since then, Arizona has expanded eligibility to include children in foster care, children of military personnel, and children assigned to low-performing district schools. Last year, Florida adopted a special-needs ESA law similar to Arizona’s except that it is privately managed.

Today, National Affairs published an essay I coauthored with Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation. Our essay explores the administrative, regulatory, and constitutional issues that policymakers will have to address when designing an ESA law. Policymakers should consider crafting a privately managed and privately funded ESA law that offers tax credits in return for donations to scholarship organizations that manage the ESAs. Florida’s privately managed model is already proving to be more operationally efficient and effective than Arizona’s government-run model. A privately managed ESA would be less susceptible to capture by hostile parties than a government agency, more likely to generate and retain best practices, and more likely to have the ability and incentives to be responsive to the needs of families. Privately funded ESAs also have several advantages over government-funded ESA laws. In particular, they are more likely to pass constitutional muster in states with restrictive “Blaine amendments” and less likely to include burdensome regulations that undermine the effectiveness of the program.

We conclude:

Most school choice programs offer significant but not revolutionary changes to the traditional educational model. But true educational choice, and the educational market it could help foster, promise to radically improve education for many children. As Milton Friedman observed, “not all ‘schooling’ is ‘education’ and not all ‘education’ is ‘schooling.’” Charter schools and voucher programs still conflate the two, but education savings accounts embody a more expansive understanding of education.

ESAs offer several key advantages over traditional school choice programs. Because families can spend ESA funds at multiple providers and can save unspent funds for later, ESAs incentivize families to economize and maximize the value of each dollar spent in a manner similar to spending their own money. ESAs also create incentives for education providers to unbundle services and products to better meet students’ individual learning needs. […] These laws hold great potential to expand educational opportunity and remake the entire education system in ways that better and more efficiently meet the needs of children.