Put parents in charge with a universal ESA
March 26, 2021
Greg Forster, Ph.D.
Education is child-rearing, and it belongs to parents. Putting parents in charge of education through universal Education Savings Accounts is the best way to help schools cope with the challenges of the Covid crisis in a way that will actually deliver the best possible education.
In our education system as in other policy areas, the public health emergency of 2020 has been a massive disruption of the status quo. Unsurprisingly, we are now surrounded by a swarm of voices claiming this or that newfangled approach will take advantage of the moment for “transformational change” in education. Amid this storm of unpredictable winds, now is the time to plant our feet on the firm foundation of parent empowerment. Let parents be the judge of which innovations should be tried and how. That way, the next generation of education can be built on the principles of equality, freedom, justice, and accountability for excellence. Putting parents in charge of education through school choice programs, like a universal Education Savings Account, can make transformational change effective, plausible, and sustainable. Otherwise, “transformational” aspirations are likely to produce a lot of wasted effort, special-interest giveaways and unsustainable techno-futurist digital fads.
What Kind of Change Do We Want? Parent Power and the Goals of Education
Rhetoric about “change” and “transformation” is as ubiquitous as it is superficially appealing. From the American Revolution to the civil rights revolution to the internet revolution, Americans have always been a forward-thinking people. We look at the world and say, “we can do better.” And as Calvin Coolidge wisely warned in his address on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, this salutary hope for progress comes with a dangerous temptation: that progress becomes an idol, an end in itself—change for the sake of change, rather than for the sake of justice and freedom. The question that really matters is not whether there will be change, but what kind of change we want.
It is important not to mistake the moment. The mere fact of disruption does not, by itself, have any inherent tendency to favor good changes over bad ones. Periods of disruption can loosen the grip of dysfunctional institutions and make space for positive change. They can also give special interests a golden opportunity to grab more swag and more turf while everyone is distracted by the emergency. They can even do both at the same time.
Of course, it is always the right time to do the right thing. But during a crisis, it is especially important to think carefully about first principles. A crisis is the time when we will be most sorely tempted to compromise our most important commitments under the sway of special interests and specious fashions. Let’s hold on tight to what is good.
What are the primary goals of our education system? We want to help children achieve academic excellence and be prepared for productive lives. We want to help children cultivate strong character and acquire the habits of honesty, diligence, generosity and self-control that are necessary to a life worth living. And we want to realize as best we can our national aspiration to be a community of equality and freedom with justice under the law for all people.
The Resources Approach
One strategy for pursuing these goals that never lacks special-interest advocates is to pour more money into the system. This includes not only direct calls for higher spending levels, but all approaches that focus on increasing the system’s resource inputs—for example, smaller classes or teacher pay and credentials. But it is worth reminding ourselves that all approaches focused on improving education by increasing resource inputs have failed, consistently, for generations, and reminding ourselves why they have failed.The government school monopoly is just as capable of squandering new money as it was of squandering all the money we have given it in the past.
Increased spending has consistently failed to improve educational outcomes, because it does not change the systemic problems that cause the government school monopoly to malfunction (including its tendency to divert spending away from the uses where it is really needed). Smaller classes have consistently failed to improve educational outcomes, because the costs greatly outweigh the benefits when class-size reduction is done at scale, and because the need to hire large numbers of new teachers undermines teacher quality. Increasing teacher pay and credentials has consistently failed to improve educational outcomes, because under current educational and hiring practices, these metrics are not closely associated with actual teacher quality.
The failure of resource-based reform establishes that the problem is systemic—it is qualitative, not quantitative. We do not need to simply do more of what we are doing now; we need to change the kind of thing we are doing.
A more systemic strategy for reform is aggressive regimes of test-based accountability, such as the federal government’s attempt in the 2010s to create testing and enforcement systems around Common Core. However, only a limited number of the outcomes we most desire for education are really well-suited to test-based accountability; math skills can be evaluated by a mass-produced standardized test, but not an understanding of Shakespeare, to say nothing of moral character or our national aspirations to freedom and equality. Test-based accountability systems also have a dangerous tendency to usurp the curriculum—schools sacrifice attention to other goals that are not being tested to focus on those that are. And the politicians responsible for creating these systems have consistently failed to use tests in appropriate ways—for example, relying on score levels instead of score gains, which is more a measure of student demographics than of schools’ performance. These concerns and others help explain why test-based accountability has never had the robust political support it would require for sustainability. (For an in-depth analysis of the problems with test-based accountability, see my series of articles on “The Next Accountability.”)
A related kind of systemic approach is educational techno-futurism, which seeks to revolutionize education by using digital-learning technologies to revolutionize the methods by which we supply it. As face-to-face contact became problematic during the COVID-19 crisis, techno-futurists were positioning themselves as the champions of educational transformation. This is a systemic approach because it recognizes that our problem is qualitative rather than quantitative—that we need to change what we do rather than simply doing more of what we already do. It is related to the test-based accountability strategy because it focuses on technocratic efficiency rather than principles; it understands the educational problem not as a moral challenge that requires us to think about what education should be, but as an operational challenge that only requires us to think about how we can more efficiently deliver it.
Over the past decade, the much-ballyhooed overturning of the educational status quo by new technological approaches such as MOOCs (massive open online courses) has been stymied by such challenges as low completion rates and unsatisfactory measurement of outcomes. New technologies have proven their worth in helping produce new and more accessible educational resources that teachers can use, such as the instructional videos produced by Khan Academy. But improving the actual delivery of education to children is a more complex problem than improving the delivery of data packets to laptops. It’s well and good to invent a new operating system for computers, but inventing a new operating system for human beings turns out to be harder—and more morally fraught—than it looks.
Putting Parents in Charge
We must go further back to find first principles. Instead of just doing more of the same, or focusing on technocratic efficiency, we must ask the moral question. What is education?
Human nature points to a clear answer: education is child-rearing, and it belongs to parents. Human beings are not generic units, interchangeable and automatically functional, like the dollars in a teacher union’s bank account or the bubbles on a standardized test or the ones and zeros in a computer program. Human beings are unique creatures with unruly minds, hearts, and wills that are made to become mature, responsible, and free in a just community of equals. And it is obvious to anyone who knows the natural “facts of life” that the process of preparing a human being for mature freedom rests with families, since that is where human beings originally come from (the exact processes involved being a subject outside our current scope). To say that schools exist to educate is to say that they exist to help families rear their children.
Putting parents in charge of education is also the approach that aligns with the historic self-understanding of the American people. Our nation is dedicated to the proposition that we can live together, free and equal, through justice under the law based on human rights, rather than having to ground social order in the illiberal imposition of one person’s or one group’s way upon others. Only parental control of education can align our education system with this aspiration, allowing each family an equal right to raise its own children in accordance with its own beliefs, thus creating a just community in which all people are respected. A government school monopoly necessarily imposes conformity upon dissenters, unjustly relegating some citizens to an unequal position in the community. And since we all know this to be true, as long as the monopoly exists we will continue to see cultural groups mobilizing to fight culture wars for control of what views the government monopoly will teach. Thus the monopoly not only undermines justice by creating inequality and unfreedom, it keeps us whipped up in a state of hostility toward those who are different from us, undermining the universal goodwill for the dignity and rights of all people that the American experiment presupposes.
Parent power is the only effective accountability system. How can we judge whether a given educational approach—say, a new way of doing digital learning—is genuinely likely to give a child a better education, and to prepare the child for life in the American civic community, as opposed to being a special-interest payoff or an ephemeral fad? We have one highly reliable test: Ask that child’s parents. This is the natural and right way to hold schools and other education service providers accountable for excellence, as well as to build a nation where equality and freedom prevail over the conformism and dependency of a government monopoly.
Designing a Transformational Parent Empowerment Program
There is no need to reinvent the wheel when considering how to design a program for transforming education by putting parents in charge. Decades of success have allowed the school choice movement to discover what works. There are, however, some new questions to consider in the context of the COVID-19 challenge.
School choice puts parents in charge of education by allowing each family to decide for itself what school, public or private, will best serve their own child’s unique needs. Public funds follow the child to the school of the parents’ choice, instead of being locked into whatever government school the student is arbitrarily assigned to based on home address. This aligns schools with the needs of families, in terms of their understanding of their mission and their organizational culture as well as in terms of direct financial incentives, rather than with politicians and special interests.
A large body of empirical research finds that these types of school choice programs improve educational outcomes both for students who use them and students who remain in public schools, as well as alleviating ethnic segregation, strengthening the civic values of our democracy, and saving money. There are now 30 states and two territories (the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) with school choice programs serving well over half a million students. Oklahoma is one of 18 states with multiple private school choice programs.
Education Savings Accounts
As school choice has become more successful in the past generation, program design has evolved and improved. One key lesson to learn from the history of modern school choice is the importance of easy parent access and flexibility. Where parents can customize the use of educational funds, new possibilities emerge—a particularly important consideration amid the public health emergency.
Older program designs include school vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. Under these systems, families receive a single-use, “one and done” financial instrument, either in the form of a voucher provided by the government that they can redeem for tuition at their school of choice, or in the form of a tuition scholarship dispensed by a nonprofit organization funded by tax-deductible donations. While both these systems are good for providing school choice, they are not the best designs now available. Because they only provide a single-use instrument, they incentivize private schools to raise their tuition levels to match the amount available, which funds bloat and inefficiency. Tax-credit scholarships also give private scholarship organizations discretion over who receives scholarships, as opposed to giving parents a right to exercise choice.
Putting parents in charge of education is the approach that aligns with the historic self-understanding of the American people.
By contrast, Education Savings Accounts (often called “ESAs”) maximize parent access and flexibility. Under this design, instead of receiving a “one and done” voucher or scholarship, parents receive the public funding to support their children’s education in a special account that they own and control. Funds in the account can only be used for educational purposes, but parents have flexibility to buy services from multiple providers, or to save money by opting for schools with lower tuition. When a student leaves the K-12 system, unspent funds can be used for college or other educational opportunities. Thus, ESAs do not subsidize bloat in private schools. They also give parents additional flexibility by making it possible to use the funds on multiple providers—say, private school tuition plus supplementary educational services from another source.
The recent public-health crisis makes the flexibility of Education Savings Accounts more attractive than ever. States have spent a year struggling to figure out how to accommodate students in school buildings, torn between parents who want to return to in-person education and parents concerned about exposure to the pandemic.
The underlying problem is the need for a one-size-fits-all solution, which Education Savings Accounts would remove. Parents who want either partially or wholly digital learning, and/or hybrid approaches that combine the two, could mix and match services. Parents wanting traditional approaches could have them, perhaps finding small ways to use supplemental services (either in-person or digital) to make improvements on the margins. Meanwhile, some number of parents will want bolder alternatives, and we would all benefit from their initiative because it would help all of us discover what might work better.
Another important lesson of the past generation is that universal school choice is preferable over giving choice to limited populations. Programs created with stricter limits on which students they are allowed to serve (e.g., family income restrictions) and how they are allowed to serve them (e.g., overregulation of participating schools) struggle, both educationally and politically. When programs create more freedom for more parents, they create more benefits for schools and students, and have a larger political base.
Of the dozens of programs that exist in 30 states, the only failed example of school choice in U.S. history is a school voucher program in Louisiana. Test score effects in multiple studies of that program came back negative. What happened? Regulators piled up unreasonable regulations on the program, and aggressively signaled that more regulations were on the way. And so, unlike every other school choice program in the country, Louisiana’s was unable to attract most private schools to participate. The only schools willing to join the program were the lowest-performing ones, who were looking for any lifeline to keep them alive. Survey research by the program’s evaluators found that regulation was the number-one reason for not participating cited by private-school leaders. (See a discussion of the Louisiana program here.)
Universal choice also becomes more attractive in the aftermath of the pandemic. Offering a universal choice program would allow every family to find its own educational solution to the crisis. Above, we have noted that Education Savings Accounts are valuable because they provide parents with flexibility, removing the imperative to find a one-size-fits-all solution and allowing different families to approach the pandemic challenge differently. But only the families that are actually eligible for the program will gain access to this flexibility. If some families are arbitrarily excluded from participating, the impossible challenge of finding a one-size solution for their post-pandemic educational needs remains.
Making choice programs universal would also help the programs surmount the political challenge of making policy in a post-pandemic world. It is always the case that social programs with restricted access are divisive; they take tax revenue from all taxpayers and use it to benefit only some of them. But the divisiveness would be much more intense, generating stronger opposition, in programs whose purpose is to cope with the effects of the pandemic. Everyone has been affected by COVID-19. What is the justification for extending educational flexibility to some and not others in its aftermath?
Oklahoma has the opportunity to adopt a transformative educational reform in the aftermath of the pandemic, but only if it puts first things first. The top priorities for providing a good education are not money or tests or technology, but equality, freedom, justice, and accountability for excellence. The government school monopoly is just as capable of squandering and subverting new money, new tests, or new technologies as it was of squandering and subverting all the money, tests, and technologies we have given it in the past. Putting parents in charge of education through universal Education Savings Accounts is the best way to help schools cope with the challenges of the crisis in a way that will actually deliver the best possible education—and for that reason, it has the best prospects to transform the education system for the better.