Are ESAs a Good Idea?

A school choice program is a tool, a mechanism that enables a parent to direct their education funding to the school of their choice. School choice programs are not magic. Simply granting a parent a choice does not guarantee academic success. At their best school choice programs have the capacity to enable high-performing private and charter schools that put students on a path to success. At their worst school choice programs enable low-performing private and charter schools to access millions of dollars of government revenue.

As I have argued before, a school choice program is only as strong as the organizations operating within it. For school choice to be a successful education reform, i.e. one that leads to improved student outcomes and a stronger system of publicly funded education, it must be accepted by the community in which it operates, it must be well-governed, it must be widely accessible, and it must be held accountable for performance. Which brings me to the newest type of school choice program being discussed in Wisconsin, the Education Savings Account (ESA).

ESAs remind of the boutique voucher programs I have always opposed. There are school choice supporters who fiercely argue that school choice programs can (and should) be specialized and highly targeted. An example of this is the special needs voucher program in Wisconsin, which serves a small population that must meet a litany of requirements before receiving a voucher. The logic behind these programs never made sense to me. If choice is good, why highly restrict it the point where only a small population can use it, and to the point where no innovative provider would dare enter the education marketplace due to the uncertain supply of students and revenue? In my opinion, the special needs voucher program was more a reaction to legislator frustration with open enrollment denials that anything else. But back to the point.

What problem are ESAs trying to solve? How would ESAs help build a strong sector of education organizations that are permanent assets to Wisconsin’s education system? How does the state begin to regulate ESAs and the organizations providing services? More broadly, how can ESAs be governed so as to maximize the likelihood of an aggregate positive academic impact? And the all important equity question, will most parents be able to make sense of ESAs, or is this solely a middle-class reform?

I do not have the answer to these questions, but I hope policymakers are considering them. If you’ve had the misfortune of speaking to me about education matters in the last year you’ve gotten an earful about fragmentation and its consequences. Simply, adding funding and regulatory complexity into the K-12 education without a clear plan for coherent governance makes the introduction of positive change more difficult, or perhaps impossible. It is the problem Milwaukee is struggling through right now, and it is imperative that the state not follow suit. So are ESAs a good idea? I am skeptical. Not of the motives of those who support them, but of the likelihood that that they will improve the quality of Wisconsin’s education system.

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