Why I’m Rooting for Success of ESAs, Even Though They’re Not My Cup of Tea

Competitive effects will help public schools
Stock image of a lifeboat
School choice is not a life-boat, but a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Let me state at the outset that universal education savings accounts (ESAs) are not my cup of tea. I don’t love handing over taxpayer money to rich people who don’t need it. Like my colleague Chester Finn, I’m skeptical that states will exert effective quality control over the schools and vendors that participate in such programs. I suspect that “hybrid homeschooling” and the like will remain a niche sector in American education, given how much work it creates for us (already overworked) parents. And I doubt the lowball amounts states are spending on these available-for-everyone ESAs will be enough to create a robust supply of high-quality options in the disadvantaged communities that need them most (and which I worry most about).

In my dream world, we’d instead take the school choice movement’s mojo and focus it on expanding high quality charter schools, bringing religious charter schools into the mix, and creating enrichment savings accounts with new money to help low-income and working-class families access afterschool and weekend opportunities for their kids, including intensive tutoring (along the lines of this federally-funded Ohio initiative).

Yet I’m still rooting for the universal ESA programs that are sweeping the nation. And that’s because I believe the odds are good that these initiatives will lead traditional public schools to improve.

If that logic sounds off, it’s because the “public school argument” is usually made to oppose such programs. The worry—and this is nothing new—is that such policies will enable the most advantaged students with the most clued-in parents to escape public schools, taking their tax dollars with them and leaving a more disadvantaged population of students behind in schools with fewer resources (financial and otherwise) than ever.

All of us should take such concerns seriously. Education is not a simple commodity, like a widget traded in the free market. What makes it complex, first and foremost, is the importance of students’ peers. Scholars have long found that “peer effects” matter—that kids learn more when certain types of students are in their classrooms and others are not. We all understand this intuitively, too. It’s why we worry about segregation, celebrate “mainstreaming” students with disabilities whenever possible, and debate endlessly about various forms of grouping and tracking in our schools.

Nor is this theoretical. When middle class families left the cities in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, it no doubt left urban school systems with fewer resources and a higher concentration of disadvantaged kids. The same thing happened in many rural areas and small towns over the last few decades, as prosperous metro areas pulled the cognitive elite away from home, leaving a poorer, more disadvantaged population behind.

Enter the evidence

We should empathize, then, with public school advocates who worry that school choice could repeat the damage done by white flight and brain drain. The good news, however, is that we now have decades of experience and evidence about whether they are right to be concerned. And the verdict is in: School choice is associated with improvements in traditional public schools.

School choice is not a life-boat, but a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas has painstakingly aggregated all of the relevant studies on the “competitive effects” of private school choice programs. At last count, twenty-five of twenty-seven studies find positive effects on public schools, with the other two finding null effects. (See Table 5 here.) As Wolf writes, “no empirical study of the competitive effects of private school choice programs concludes that the effects are negative.”

It’s worth noting that several of these studies, including recent ones from Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana, find disappointing results for the students participating in the school choice programs—while at the same time finding benefits for the public school students “left behind.” It’s hard to argue that the authors of such studies are putting their thumbs on the scale.

One of the most compelling recent studies, by David Figlio, Cassandra M. D. Hart, and Krzysztof Karbownik, examined Florida’s massive tax-credit scholarship program over the course of fifteen years, and found positive competitive effects on both academic outcomes and student behavior. The more competition that schools faced, the greater the impacts. Though the impacts overall were still rather small: less than 1 percent of a standard deviation each year. But year after year, those impacts added up, especially for the most disadvantaged students in the schools facing the most competitive pressure.

* * *

Both sides of this debate argue that universal education savings accounts will be a game-changer. Advocates think they will revolutionize schooling. Opponents think they will destroy public schools. I think both groups are wrong. Mostly they will subsidize families that have already chosen private schooling or home schooling, will encourage a small number of families on the bubble to choose Catholic or other private schools, and along the way, will put helpful (if limited) pressure on school districts to improve.

For me, that’s enough.

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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