A revolution is underway in American education. Across the country, citizens and legislators are embracing educational opportunity and choice. More and more of us understand that pluralism, not monopoly, is the way forward and that public education, correctly understood, is not about school systems but rather the empowerment of parents and the flourishing of children.
On January 24, Iowa governor Kim Reynolds signed legislation creating what will be, when fully implemented, an education savings account (ESA) program promising every child in the state approximately $7,600 for qualified education expenses, including private school tuition. A few days later, Utah governor Spencer Cox followed suit, signing legislation giving all students in his state access to an $8,000 ESA that, as in Iowa, can be used for a range of educational expenses. With the addition of Iowa and Utah, the number of states with universal ESA programs increased to four, along with Arizona and West Virginia. Even more states are poised to join them.
The implications of the accelerating turn to universal parental choice cannot be overstated. Until last year, 31 states had private-school-choice programs, all of which restricted eligibility in some way. Some, for example, limited participation to low-income students, others to students with disabilities. Moreover, nearly half of the existing programs use tax-credit mechanisms to encourage donations for private school scholarships but do not directly fund them.
The embrace of ESAs—as opposed to vouchers and tax-credit scholarships—as the mechanism for achieving universal choice is also striking. ESAs represent a definitive and principled move beyond school choice to parental choice. While these terms have been used interchangeably for decades, education reformers historically have focused on giving parents choices among different types of schools (district, charter, and private) rather than between schools and other educational options. For example, the American Federation for Children’s annual guide to parental-choice programs is called The School Choice Guidebook and EdChoice’s is The ABCs of School Choice. And, while it is reasonable to expect that, at least in the short term, most families will use ESA dollars for private school tuition, ESAs are more than school-choice programs. They are true parental-choice programs, and catalysts for real-world education pluralism and diversity, giving parents the option of using the public dollars allocated for their children’s education not only for tuition but also for “microschooling,” instructional materials for homeschooling, tutoring, and education therapies.
Questions remain, to be sure, about the “on the ground” effects of these measures. ESAs have the potential to be truly disruptive innovations even as they tap into the traditional principle that parents are the first and primary educators of their children. For the first time in the history of American education policy, states are embracing the “money follows the child” model of education funding that has long been the dream of parental-choice advocates. Still, it is fair to say that nobody knows what will actually happen next. Will ESAs spur innovation in, and competition between, existing schools—district, charter, and private? Will large numbers of parents embrace the full range of options provided by ESAs? Will ESAs lead more parents to homeschool or to band together to create microschools, like the Black Mothers’ Forum microschools in Arizona? Will they lead to the expansion of existing private schools and the creation of new ones? Promisingly, Arizona’s most successful charter school operator, Great Hearts Academies, recently announced plans to develop a new network of classical Christian schools, Great Hearts Christos, aimed at low- and middle-income families and funded primarily by ESAs.
Why now? That is, why are states moving to embrace inclusive universal parental choice at this moment? Frustration over prolonged public school closures during the pandemic—in stark contrast to private schools’ determination to open their doors as soon as possible—undoubtedly has played a major role, as have concerns about the rise of ideological curricular content in some public schools. But an underappreciated variable is the shift in messaging by parental-choice advocates. For decades, advocates focused on the imperative of improving academic outcomes among disadvantaged students by giving poor children access to better schools. As Howard Fuller, architect of the nation’s first modern private-school-choice program, once observed, the battle for parental choice has become “more of a rescue mission than a fight for broad societal change.”
Some aspects of this “rescue mission” rhetoric continue to animate the fight for universal ESAs—especially dispiriting evidence about the negative effects on student learning of remote instruction during the pandemic. However, the compelling case for universal parental choice is not about improving academic achievement or spurring competition. It is about empowering parents—all parents—to take control of their children’s education. The battle over universal ESAs, in other words, is “a fight for broad societal change,” centered on the argument that parents should be entrusted with decisions about the education of their children.
Parental-empowerment arguments are not new to education-reform debates. For more than six decades, legal scholar and parental-choice advocate Jack Coons has argued that parental choice should be embraced not because it will improve test scores but because empowering parents is the right thing to do. He has built this parental-empowerment case for choice in dozens of blog posts, articles, and books (including in a forthcoming volume that we co-edited, The Case for Parental Choice: God, Family, and Educational Liberty). Indeed, Coons—together with the late Steven Sugarman—was arguably the first to propose ESAs (which they called “divisible vouchers”), in the 1970s. Over and over again, Coons has argued that parental choice is right and just, both because parents (however imperfect) know their children better—and love them more—than anyone else, and because our public education system too often ignores and disenfranchises parents, especially poor ones. With the enactment of universal ESAs, Coons, now 93, is no longer a voice in the wilderness. The rhetoric of parent empowerment is not only carrying the day; it is moving the policy needle far beyond what anyone reasonably expected even a short time ago.
While the potential impact of universal ESAs is immense, the fact that the rhetoric of parent empowerment, rather than of student achievement, is driving their adoption is arguably more important. The United States is home to more than 50 million school-aged children. Many of their parents are being invited for the first time to decide how best to educate them. These parents are being trusted to control thousands of public-education dollars. Some will make mistakes, to be sure, and some will unfortunately remain unaware that options other than district schools are available. Both of these realities make efforts to inform parents critical, but neither means that empowering parents is a mistake. As Coons has repeatedly argued, parents have much more to gain (and far more to lose) from decisions about their children’s education than education bureaucrats. Opponents will try to block or roll back ESA expansion—as Arizona’s new governor has pledged to do—but once parents have been entrusted with these decisions, they are unlikely to relinquish control over them without a fight.