Sen. Warren Was Right: Educational Freedom Helps All Students
“[T]he term ‘voucher’ has become a dirty word in many educational circles.... The fear is that partial-subsidy vouchers provide a boost so that better-off parents can opt out of a failing public school system, while the other children are left behind… [But] a taxpayer-funded voucher that paid the entire cost of educating a child (not just a partial subsidy) would open a range of opportunities to all children.”
This bold call for transformational education reform came not from some secret cabal of school choice groups, but from the recently unearthed 2004 policy prescriptions of now-Senator Elizabeth Warren. Fifteen years later, this vision is now becoming a reality for families throughout the nation. But educational freedom remains anathema to those who ignore the facts and instead embrace the false conventional “wisdom” that school choice benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
While many states have enacted traditional private school voucher programs over the past several decades, a new, broader form of educational opportunity has burst onto the stage — one that helps fulfill Sen. Warren’s 2004 vision of a system in which “parents would take control over schools’ tax dollars.” This innovation, known as an education savings account (ESA), takes part of what a state would have spent covering the cost of a student’s education in a K-12 public school and instead deposits that money into a personalized account that allows the child’s family to use the funds for tutoring, educational therapies, private school tuition, curriculum materials, and other teaching tools. In Arizona, where the nation’s first ESA program began in 2012, enrollment has surged from fewer than 150 kids to more than 6,500, serving students with special needs as well as those from military families, the foster care system, failing public schools, and Native American reservations.
And despite the claims of opponents, this program is far more than a partial coupon to expensive private schools affordable only for the wealthy. In fact, new research finds that the typical ESA award amount for non-special needs students (approximately $6,100) is greater than the median private elementary school tuition and fee cost in the state. In other words, for even the most disadvantaged families, their ESA can cover 100% of the cost of tuition at most private elementary schools.
This is especially meaningful to the hundreds of families using ESAs in places like the tribal reservation lands, where local district schools receive up to $16,000 per year in funding per student, and yet, as in the case of the San Carlos Unified School District, 100% of the district’s schools annually receive a D or F rating from the State Board of Education. Or in one of the lowest performing downtown Phoenix school districts, where over 90% of families are African American and Hispanic, and where ESAs completely cover the local private school tuition rate at 4 out of 5 of the nearby private K-8 schools.
Of course, public school families aren’t themselves paying $16,000 a year to attend their local district schools, but as Sen. Warren herself noted, “Bad schools impose indirect—but huge—costs” on families. Indeed, it may seem backwards to opponents of educational freedom, but thanks to the ESA program, it is not the cost of private or homeschool services that these families cannot afford. It is the lack of opportunity they have faced for so long under a district monopoly over education. The same lack of opportunity millions of students without access to options like an ESA program still face.
Thankfully, Arizona is not alone in ushering in new opportunities for students. States as varied as Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, and North Carolina have likewise established ESA programs, with efforts underway across the country to bring hope to more students (including that of Congressman Andy Biggs, Chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, to offer ESAs to students on tribal reservation lands nationwide).
Having been supported by conservative leaders like Rep. Biggs and Democratic icons like Sen. Warren, it is clear that school choice ought to transcend partisan politics. And while then-Professor Warren spoke in 2004 specifically of a public voucher program, she herself noted that “public-versus-private competition misses the central point. The problem is not vouchers; the problem is parental choice.” Indeed, let us hope that more families will be given that choice, and that more students will find themselves able to thrive.
Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute and the author of the new Goldwater Institute-American Federation of Children report on how ESAs help low-income students.