February 10, 2015

February 10, 2015 | Commentary on Education

Freeing America’s education system from the 19th century

Think of all the ways you’ve learned about a new subject or acquired a new skill in the past month. You’ve probably read an article or book. Maybe you’ve listened to a lecture or podcast by an expert on something you’re curious about. Perhaps you signed up for a do-it-yourself tutorial at Home Depot or received individualized coaching. No doubt you’ve gone online to read up on an important topic or to engage in a discussion on a challenging issue.

The ways we can learn new things have dramatically multiplied in recent decades. Yet America’s educational system still bears more resemblance to the 19th-century mode of delivering education — through brick-and-mortar schoolhouses — than today’s vast array of learning options. An important new policy innovation emerging in several states has the potential to change that. Education savings accounts represent a new generation of educational choice, expanding the promise of opportunity to more Americans.

Education savings accounts, which are available to a growing number of students in Arizona and Florida, allow the funds that would have been spent on a child in public school to be directed by parents to a variety of other education options. Ninety percent of an eligible student’s state per-pupil funding is put into the education savings account (ESA). Parents can then draw funds from the ESA for any lawful education expense. This includes private school, home school, online education, tutoring and any number of emerging educational opportunities. Unused funds can be rolled over to the next year, or placed into a college savings account. ESAs incentivize smart consumer choices and have proven to be very popular.

A number of other states beyond Arizona and Florida are now considering this innovative approach to education.

ESAs make an important shift in the way we think about education in America. Typically, policy is dominated by questions of delivering education, which subtly shifts emphasis away from the child and their family toward those governing and running public schools (almost 90 percent of children attend public schools). ESAs put the emphasis back on students. ESAs are about students acquiring the customized educational components that best meet their needs and help them develop their gifts.

ESAs help put the student back at the center of education policy discussions. Yet some groups object and have thrown up obstructions to protect the status quo and stifle this promising innovation.

Teachers’ union-led lawsuits in Arizona and Florida have attempted to halt education savings accounts, and similar suits are threatened in states considering ESAs. In Arizona, for example, the unions argued that by allowing parents to choose religious schools for their children, the state ESA policy violated that state’s constitutional provisions prohibiting state aid to religious schools. The Arizona Court of Appeals rejected that argument. In Niehaus v. Huppenthal, the court noted that, “the ESA does not limit the choices extended to families but expands the options to meet the individual needs of children.”

These lawsuits relied exclusively on state constitutional provisions because the U.S. Supreme Court has squarely held that programs allowing parents to choose religious education among other school options does not in itself violate the First Amendment of the Constitution. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court held that since parents were making the ultimate decision on where their child was educated, choosing a religious school with the use of a publicly funded voucher did not amount to government endorsement of religion. That case involved the question of vouchers — which allowed parents to choose among private schools, some of which were religiously affiliated.

ESAs similarly leave the educational choice up to parents, allowing an even wider range of educational options. No ESA program has been struck down in court.

In our self-governing society, education should reflect the principles on which this nation is founded — in its content and in the ways we pursue it. Education savings accounts take us closer to that goal by empowering parents actively to direct their children’s learning, and thereby help students seek their full potential. ESAs are one important way that policymakers can open the doors of opportunity to all Americans. Let’s hope they’re within reach of more students by this time next year.

Editor's Note: This article was co-authored by Joshua Thompson.

 - Joshua P. Thompson is a staff attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) and PLF’s leader in school choice litigation. 

 - Jennifer Marshall is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

Originally appeared in The Tampa Bay Tribune