This is the sixth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael Goldstein, Seth Rau, Matthew Ladner, Jonathan Butcher, and Tracey Weinstein.
I’m excited about Nevada’s new education savings accounts, though not without concern. What I want most is for everyone to appreciate just how momentous this new program is and to understand its promise and risks.
Nevada’s ESAs could precipitate the largest and swiftest expansion of school choice in this movement’s history. Every single family with a school-aged child will have the opportunity to use a per-pupil allotment of state funds to help cover a wide array of educational expenses. This includes private school tuition, tutoring, online learning programs, special education services, and much more.
In the best of circumstances, this will enable families to craft personalized educational programs for their children. ESAs should also energize the “supply side,” spurring the development of new schools and programs to meet the varied needs of Nevada’s students.
So if everything goes according to plan, we’d quickly see empowered parents and a dynamic market of educational options. Ideally, this would produce competitive forces, diversifying options and pushing quality up and price down. It should also help generate new “mediating institutions,” nimble social-sector arrangements (like parent groups and school associations) that foster social capital and help communities accomplish private and public goals
Unfortunately, public policy seldom goes exactly according to plan. Our experience with NCLB tutoring is instructive. It too was supposed to empower families and create a vibrant supply of services. But the law didn’t work as expected. The existing system found the cleverest ways to gum up the works; in the end, few families participated, and the results were disappointing.
Even if we could minimize the mischief of our existing system, emerging markets are inefficient and sometimes dodgy. Today’s educational offerings (district, charter, private, online, homeschooling, supplemental services, etc.) reflect current policy and financial arrangements. ESAs will suddenly and dramatically grow demand: More families with more resources will be seeking more services. The ramp-up of supply will almost certainly make technocrats cringe.
Expect the entrance of some number of sleek but low-quality providers. Expect gaps to emerge—for instance, limited options for remote rural areas or for specific groups of kids. Early on (and maybe for longer), families will find precious little information on new offerings, since it takes time for industry standards and word of mouth to spread. No one can know exactly what the resulting landscape will look like, but the safe bet is that it won’t be all roses.
My bigger worry, though, relates to the rapidity and expanse of possible changes. Fast, fundamental change of longstanding institutions is generally hazardous. What we have today (in education and elsewhere) is the result of trial-and-error processes played out over generations. It is never perfect, but it is robust, and it often possesses wisdom.
Should a significant portion of Nevada’s families take advantage of this program, it will amount to an abrupt, dramatic shift not just in the state’s role in public education, but also in the delivery of schooling. This implicates everything from district operations, data systems, and democratic control to PTAs, property values, and the public (as in “public education”). This is not Edmund Burke’s brand of modest, gradual change.
So why do I still support Nevada’s ESAs? First, they empower families and diversify options, both of which are indispensable qualities for meaningful, lasting reform. Second, innovation and change are essential; they should be met with prudence, not reflexive opposition.
Third, this program has attributes likely to mitigate the dangers associated with speedy changes to longstanding institutions: ESAs give authority to individuals, not central administrators; new activity occurs in civil society, not government agencies; participation is a function of choice, not compulsion.
The older I get, the more I appreciate that a winning argument prevails over but doesn’t eliminate the opposition. So my hesitations and others’ stick around and insist on being addressed. However, the legislation gives the government very little authority to regulate the program.
If I were a Nevada leader, I’d prioritize transparency, continuous and small-scale course corrections, and research. In the short term, I’d appeal to the state and other interested parties to collect and publish information on providers, participation rates, student outcomes, and more.
In the medium term, I’d encourage the social sector to attract great educators, develop programs, fill gaps in offerings, and promptly address performance problems.
In the long term—and probably most importantly—I’d ask researchers to study how the public’s interests are and are not being met by these increasingly private choices.