ESAs: Parental Choice

January 20, 2016

Vicki Alger

Part three in a multi-part series about education savings accounts.

A national poll released by the Democratic polling firm Beck Research in early 2015 found that close to seven out of 10 likely voters support greater parental choice in education and believe competition improves public schools.22 A subsequent nationally representative poll released in June indicates that ESAs are the most popular form of parental choice among Americans. Fully 62 percent of respondents favored ESAs compared to favorable ratings of 61 percent for voucher scholarships, 60 percent for tax-credit scholarships, and 53 percent for charter schools.23

Support for ESAs is also strong across nearly all demographics, especially adults ages 18 to 34 (75 percent). Importantly, support for ESAs was strong across the political spectrum, at 60 percent or higher for both Democratic and Democratic-leaning respondents as well as Republican and Republican-leaning respondents, and nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Independents.24 In fact, respondents who favor ESAs indicate that they are far more likely to vote for pro-ESA political candidates, ranging from 25 percent more likely among middle-income voters up to 40 percent more likely among voters ages 18 to 34.25

Finally, contrary to prevailing political wisdom that holds parental choice programs should be limited to certain groups of students, two out of three respondents believe that all students should be eligible for ESAs, not just select populations.26

Support for ESAs among likely Oklahoma voters is similarly strong with approval ratings of 56 percent.27 Similar to results from the national survey, nearly 60 percent of Oklahoma respondents (58 percent) also prefer parental choice programs that are open to all students.28 Parental choice in education is both popular and has a proven track record of success.

Parental Choice Works

Oklahoma parents clearly want more educational options, and research backs them up. Today, significant numbers of children with special needs and circumstances struggle academically, including students with disabilities, from military families, the foster care system, and those who are in or assigned to failing public schools.29 Students in or assigned to schools plagued by violence and chaotic classrooms also suffer academically.30

Research consistently shows that parental choice improves academic outcomes of participating students, most of whom are disadvantaged.31 In fact, 13 of 14 “gold standard” random assignment studies to date find that disadvantaged students, including low-income and minority children, who use scholarships to attend the schools their parents think are best perform better in reading and math and have higher high school graduation rates, college attendance rates, and college graduation rates than their peers who do not use scholarships. No study to date has ever demonstrated negative impacts on students’ academic outcomes. Moreover, the sole study finding no impact was subsequently discredited for its unscientific methodology. Upon re-analysis using scientifically sound methodologies, researchers from Harvard University documented statistically significant improvements in student achievement.32

Parental choice programs also introduce competition for students and their associated funding, putting powerful pressure on public schools to improve, thereby benefiting public school students as well. In fact, 22 out of 23 empirical studies show positive impacts from school competition, including improved reading and math achievement, and none found negative effects.33 Researchers from Columbia University’s Teachers College also reviewed more than 200 scientific analyses and concluded that competition benefits public schools “across all outcomes,” including higher student achievement, graduation rates, efficiency, teacher salaries, and smaller class sizes.34

Likewise, evaluations of the country’s largest scholarship program for special needs students, Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program, show that parental satisfaction rates with their children’s chosen private schools are nearly three times greater than with their previous public schools (93 percent compared to 33 percent). Participating private schools were also more responsive to children’s unique needs, and scholarship students had fewer behavioral problems, were victimized less, and enjoyed smaller class sizes.35 Competition for students from the McKay Program also had positive effects on public school student math and reading performance.36

By expanding the realm of parents’ educational choices beyond where their children are educated to how they are educated, ESAs maximize the positive effects of existing voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs, since a greater number and variety of education providers can compete to meet children’s unique educational needs. Additionally, ESAs have several program advantages state policymakers should consider as they work to expand education options.

Read the entire article here.

Vicki Alger (Ph.D., University of Dallas) is a research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, with a forthcoming book on the history of the U.S. Department of Education. Alger holds senior fellowships at the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C.