Greetings from Arizona! I read your piece last week about your wariness toward universal ESAs like the ones adopted here and in a handful of other states. I share many of your concerns about the potential for misuse and fraud, and the dubious choices parents might make when given control of public education funds. I worry, too, that advocates are being a bit too cocky about the growth of ESAs and a little blithe about accountability. All that said, I’m more sanguine than you. ESAs represent an intriguing development, and their sudden popularity (at least among red-state legislators) is one of the most surprising developments I’ve seen in more than two decades in this work.
Interestingly, the parent advocates, policymakers, and school leaders I’ve met with this week in Arizona sound modest about their expectations for universal ESAs, and quite level-headed. Perhaps that’s because Arizona has been an open-enrollment state for nearly three decades, and half of the state’s students already attend a school other than their designated one. It’s hard not to be struck by how different Arizona educators sound than elsewhere: They’ve spent their entire careers working in a system in which choice, flexibility, and competing for students is unremarkable.
Like you, Checker, I regard the Supreme Court decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters as a touchstone and can recite parts of it from memory. “The child is not the mere creature of the State,” and parents “who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” The rationale for ESAs has so far heavily leaned on parents’ right to direct their child’s education. But it’s the “duty” that deserves some of our attention.
A common talking point among proponents is that ESAs give parents control of their money to customize their child’s education, spending it on private school tuition, tutoring, and other educational products and services. But it’s not “their” money. It’s our money that’s being put under parental control. This is not mere pedantry or a difference of semantics. The cost of education is socialized; we have a shared stake in the education given every child in America and pay school taxes whether or not we have kids in our local school or have kids at all.
This distinction—“their” money versus “our” money—holds the key to thinking about ESAs that may assuage your misgivings, Checker. To my way of thinking, an ESA is not a new form of education funding, it’s a different form of education accountability. States like Arizona, Iowa, West Virginia, and Utah that have enacted universal ESAs aren’t giving parents money heedlessly. They’re making a public policy wager to put accountability into the hands of those who “nurture and direct” the child. They’re betting that parents will discharge their “high duty” with more attentiveness, care, and diligence than the state can possibly provide through its districts and schools.
It’s a reasonable wager. A recent report found fifty-three schools in Illinois where not a single student is on grade level in math; thirty where none read on grade level. Ditto two dozen schools in Baltimore. It’s not “whataboutism” to point to such schools as poor stewards of public funds and wonder if parents could possibly make worse decisions. Nor are such educational catastrophes limited to high-poverty urban schools and districts. Emily Hanford’s recent “Sold a Story” podcast detailed how popular approaches to reading instruction in countless schools failed millions of children, enriching the gurus who peddled them. Time and again in Hanford’s telling, it’s parents, not professional educators, who are alarmed to learn that their children can’t read and refuse to be mollified by bland reassurances to not worry, that they’ll read when they’re ready. Make no mistake, there will be examples—lots of them—of parents spending ESA dollars unwisely. But when ESA dollars are mismanaged, the damage is limited to a single household. When a school spends public dollars unwisely, hundreds of children suffer lasting harm.
I’m in strongest agreement with your concern, Checker, that enthusiasm will diminish with reports that ESA parents are spending public funds on extravagances with a “hazy relationship to K–12 education.” Nothing will derail enthusiasm for ESAs more quickly than a steady drumbeat of stories like the one in The 74 describing public dollars going to kayaks, chicken coops, and trips to SeaWorld. Never mind that, when I was a South Bronx public school teacher, we took kids ziplining, to theme parks, paid for ballroom dancing lessons, and more, all on the taxpayer’s dime. Chicken coops? I visited a school near Tucson this week with a barn, livestock, and students on their way to careers in large-animal veterinary science. It was fantastic.
The simple fact is that motivated opponents, from teachers unions to the media, will be looking for questionable spending of ESA funds, and such examples will not be hard to find. I noted with no small amount of consternation the response when Mike Petrilli posted your piece on Twitter (which you wisely avoid). One ESA advocate responded mockingly with a GIF of Frank Sinatra and sniffed, “Consider me pro-free-swinging, almost-anything-goes universal ESAs, babe.”
Giddiness and arrogance are the kind of thing that will derail ESAs. Choice proponents working to make ESAs a growing and politically sustainable fixture in K–12 education have to give accountability more than a smirk and a shrug. A good friend, Jason Bedrick of the Heritage Foundation, points out that, once enacted, no state has ever repealed an ESA or voucher plan. To which it’s important to add: “yet.” The sudden rise of universal ESAs makes it inconceivable that there will not be an equal and opposite reaction: a concerted effort to paint them as a reckless cash grab. At some point, ESA proponents will need to transition from popping champagne corks and recast themselves as sober and judicious stewards of public funds.