Six Big Problems With Education Savings Accounts
Education Savings Accounts are enjoying a sudden start-of-year legislative push in many states. ESAs (sometimes more accurately called education scholarship accounts) are a version of school vouchers; they are often these days teamed up with tax credit scholarships, a program that allows contributions from individuals or organizations, with donors reimbursed by the state in the form of tax credits. The ESA funds are then given to parents to spend on various education products and services. To be fully wonkily accurate, tax credit scholarships are the funding side, and ESAs are about dispersing the funds. They don’t have to be married, but these days, they commonly are. (ESAs can be funded directly by the state, but church-state considerations sometimes stand in the way; after Espinoza that may change.) States call them opportunity scholarships, students first scholarships, education freedom accounts, etc. For simplicity’s sake, many policy discussions lump these programs together under the ESA label. While proposed and already-existing programs may vary a bit from state to state, these neo-vouchers are prone to certain problems.
Blowing a hole in the budget
If the state funds ESAs directly, the loss of funding to public education is clear. But tax credit funded ESAs also cost the taxpayers. Most ESA tax credit programs include a cap for total funding. That’s because these programs cost the state money. ESAs are meant to sidestep any rules about spending tax dollars on private religious schools, but they do so by letting individuals and organizations fund the program instead of paying taxes. An ESA program with a cap of $1 million dollars would mean that the state collects $1 million less in taxes. That revenue gap must be made up by either cutting services or requiring other taxpayers to replace the lost funding.
If someone owes me twenty bucks and I say, “Just go buy a case of beer for your club, and we’ll call it even,” I can convincingly argue that I haven’t spent any money on beer, but I’m still twenty bucks short.
Theoretically, the budget shortfall could chop away at anything, but history suggests that the money will, once again, be taken from funding for public schools.
No Oversight or Accountability
Most ESA programs have little or no accountability in place to determine just how the money is being spent. In Arizona, an audit found that parents had spent $700K of ESA money on beauty supplies and clothing. In Florida, where voucher-receiving schools openly discriminate against LGBTQ students, a new bill proposes that audits be performed only every three years. Kentucky’s new ESA bill proposes audits after the state has found evidence of mis-use of funds, which seems like a rather late shutting of the barn doors. And the bill that the Iowa senate just fast-tracked in order to establish ESAs includes no call for any audits or oversight at all. (That may be in part why the Iowa Satanic Temple has announced their intention to establish the Iowa Satanic School.)
The Problems of Unbundled Education
The problems that come with lack of oversight are compounded by the open-ended nature of ESA-style vouchers.
Traditional vouchers gave parents a block of money to spend on a school. ESAs allow parents to select a variety of educational services, from individual courses to supplemental materials to other educational services, with education “unbundled” rather than provided by a single “school.” An ESA program means an explosion of vendors in a free market scramble for edu-biz dollars, but none of the programs that exist or currently being proposed have any rigorous oversight of those vendors or requirement that such vendors prove they are legit before they are allowed to compete in the marketplace.
Parents are expected to navigate this unregulated marketplace on their own. ESA bills and laws talk a lot about parent empowerment, but have little to say about providing parents safeguards against fraud and incompetence. Nor are there protections in place for students whose parents fail to exercise good judgment. And the unbundled approach to education contains many unknowns; what, for instance, happens if a family uses up all their ESA allowance before procuring a math or English course for their child?
These neo-vouchers exacerbate some of the problems we have already seen with traditional vouchers. Private schools are private businesses, and they have no requirement to serve everyone. If students are too troublesome or expensive to teach, or simply have beliefs that conflict with the school’s religious beliefs, the school (or education vendor) is under no obligation to accept that child. Traditional public education has often failed the to make good on the promise of a free, full education for every child, but at least the promise is there. Private edu-vendors make no such promise.
Disenfranchisement of Taxpayers
ESAs share one other issue with traditional vouchers. Are you an employer who thinks schools should teach good reading and thinking skills? Are you a voter who would like a country in which students learn about how the government works? Do you think students should learn that the world is not flat and that Blacks in the US were not happier as pre-Civil War slaves? Do you think a Satanic School is a terrible idea?
Well, if you don’t have any children, in an ESA world, you have no say. If education becomes a market-driven business, there is no calling the school board or political activism or marching on the district offices. Fans of ESAs expect that in place of government regulation, the market will decide what should be out there, and if you don’t have children, the market does not include you. And so far, no ESA program suggests that non-parents be excused from paying any school taxes.
Abandoning Parents in the Name of Choice
Finally, ESA programs like to tout the idea of parental empowerment, but one can also see these programs as parental abandonment. “Here,” says the state. “Take this ESA money, go get your kid an education, and good luck to you.” And then the state washes its hands.
For religious conservatives like ex-secretary of education Betsy DeVos who want to see the government removed from the education business and replaced with a free market operated primarily by religious organizations, that seems like a worthy goal; DeVos’s “Educational Freedom” program was an ESA program on a national scale. And there are certainly parents out there who have the resources to handle education on their own.
But a shift to ESAs represents a radical shift in our country’s approach to education. The old idea that education is a public good that should be guaranteed to every child not just for their own sake, but for the sake of society as a whole—ESAs replace that idea with the notion that education is a commodity like toasters and floor lamps, purchased by parents for their own personal use. Rather than an important service that is everybody’s business, ESAs work on the premise that education is only a parent’s business, and therefor only the parent’s problem.
A change this large in the fundamental concepts about our country’s educational system ought to come with a large, serious, spirited discussion. Right now, ESA programs are being pushed or expanded in many states across the country, but no such discussion is occurring. In fact, the speed with which these bills are being pushed suggests a desire to specifically avoid any such discussion. That’s bad for education, and bad for the country.
[Updated to clarify the ESA and tax credit scholarship designations.]
Published at Mon, 01 Feb 2021 20:47:52 +0000