Education savings accounts are the way of the future. Under such accounts—managed by parents with state supervision to ensure accountability—parents can use their children’s education funding to choose among public and private schools, online education programs, certified private tutors, community colleges, and even universities. Education savings accounts bring Milton Friedman’s original school voucher idea into the 21st century.
Arizona lawmakers were the first to create such a program, called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). Through that program, the state of Arizona deposits 90 percent of the funds for a participating child into an account, which can cover multiple educational services through use-restricted debit cards. Parents can choose to use all of their funds on a single method—like private school tuition—or they can employ a customized strategy using multiple methods (e.g., online programs and community college classes). Critically, parents can save some of the money for future higher education expenses through a 529 college savings program. That feature creates an incentive for parents to judge all K-12 service providers not only on quality but also on cost.
A fully realized system of ESAs would create powerful incentives for innovation in schooling practices seeking better outcomes for lower costs. Also, the broader use of funds may help to immunize choice programs against court challenges in some states. Policymakers must fashion their system of accounts to provide reasonable state oversight, fraud prevention, academic transparency, and equity.
If Milton Friedman were alive today, he likely would agree that education savings accounts represent a critical refinement of his school voucher concept. Existing voucher programs create healthy competition between public and private schools, but ESAs can create a much deeper level of systemic improvement. ESAs would allow parents to build a customized education to match the individual needs of every child, thus transforming education for the better.