To improve public schools, give families a universal ESA in 2022

August 6, 2021

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

If Oklahoma wants to improve educational outcomes in its government-run school system, it should give every family in the state an Education Savings Account (ESA) in 2022. The empirical evidence from school-choice programs across the country is clear and consistent: letting parents choose their schools makes all schools better. Believe it or not, the best way to improve educational outcomes in the government school monopoly is to break the monopoly.

Oklahoma’s government schools have plenty of room for improvement. In the most recent round of evaluations from the Nation’s Report Card, in 2019, only 34% of 4th graders were proficient in math, and 29% in reading. In 8th grade, 26% were proficient in both math and reading.

But while test scores are important, especially as a broad benchmark of how the system as a whole is doing, they are far from the only thing that counts. Concerns are growing in Oklahoma that the government school system doesn’t do an adequate job with intangibles like citizenship and social/emotional learning. The current furor over critical race theory is only one of many signs that Oklahoma parents see room for improvement in the government’s schools.

Government has proven that it can’t hold itself accountable. Parents have proven they can do the job.

We’ve tried lots of strategies for getting better outcomes out of the monopoly school system. We’ve tried spending an endless geyser of additional money—Oklahoma school spending went up from $3,771 per student in 1970 to $8,735 in 2016 (in inflation-adjusted dollars), and has continued to increase, hitting a record total this year. We’ve tried high-stakes testing. We’ve tried raising teacher pay. Other states have run major experiments with everything from smaller classes to merit pay for teachers to mandatory graduation exams.

Here and there, a few of these efforts have produced local instances of success. But none of them has worked consistently at scale. And even the local success stories have a tendency to fade over time, as school leadership inevitably gets passed on to a new “pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”

In this landscape littered with failures, school choice stands out as the only reform with a consistent track record of success. That’s because choice supplies the one thing other reforms can’t: effective accountability. Parents use public funding to send their children to the school of their choice, including private schools, so schools have to satisfy parents or lose students.

Government has proven that it can’t hold itself accountable. Parents have proven they can do the job. It’s time to let them do it.

My colleagues at EdChoice track the research on how school choice programs affect government schools. There is a large body of high-quality empirical research on this issue. Out of 27 studies—this includes all studies, no cherry-picking—25 of them found that government schools exposed to school choice improved their educational outcomes. And that’s actually an undercount, in my opinion, because when the same team of researchers conducts multiple studies, EdChoice combines the findings and counts it as only one study.

With ESAs, as with other kinds of school-choice programs, parents are put back in charge of education, where they belong. An ESA sets aside a portion of the tax dollars allocated for the education of a given student in the government school system. The money is transferred to a personal account controlled by the child’s family. The family can use that funding to pay for tuition at a school of their choice, instead of their being stuck with the government monopoly school to which they’ve been assigned based on their residence. Leftover funds can be spent on other educational services, like tutoring, or saved to pay for college and other post-secondary education.

ESAs are a sort of next-level voucher program. Traditional school vouchers give parents a lump sum and require them to spend it all on a single tuition bill. Whatever they don’t spend on that one tuition payment, they lose. This can incentivize bloat in private schools, and doesn’t offer parents flexibility to seek a variety of services. ESAs fix both those problems.

Some people simply can’t wrap their heads around the idea that government schools would be improved by taking the handcuffs off parents and allowing them to leave the system. They’re so busy “strengthening” the system that they can’t see they’re really weakening it. They’re denying it the one thing it really needs: healthy accountability. Bob Dylan was right—you gotta serve somebody.

In a landscape littered with failures, school choice stands out as the only reform with a consistent track record of success.

This is sometimes called the “paradox of intention.” It happens when people are so monomaniacally intent on achieving a goal that they lose perspective on the big picture, and as a result, do things that are counterproductive even for the goal they’re obsessed with. We’ve all seen the guy who wants a date with a particular girl so badly that he acts stalkerish and creepy around her. In every war, there are leaders who want to capture a particular position so badly that they don’t have the patience to wait for the right moment to strike. We keep shoving bigger subsidies at colleges because we want to make tuition affordable, and as a direct result, tuition keeps climbing into the stratosphere.

C.S. Lewis captured this problem in an essay titled “First and Second Things.” If you elevate something that should be second priority above something that should be first priority, you undermine not only the “first thing” that you wrongly subordinated, but the “second thing” that you wrongly elevated. You can get them both, but only if you put first things first. In education, that means putting parents back in charge.