Vicki Alger | January 13, 2016

ESAs: Personalized Learning, Educational Options

Vicki Alger

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

Using public dollars for private education providers is not an earth-shattering idea. Currently, nearly 9 million college students nationwide are using more than $32 billion in federal Pell Grants to attend the colleges and universities of their choice, public and private, nonsectarian and religious alike. In fact, more than 102,000 Oklahoma undergraduate students are using $363 million in federal Pell Grants to attend postsecondary institutions, including 26,000 students who are using almost $92 million in public funds to attend private and proprietary postsecondary institutions.5

In just a few years most of those students will likely graduate and become parents themselves; however, they will largely be restricted from using public dollars to send their own children to the elementary, middle, and high school programs of their choice—until, of course, those children turn 18 when they too will be allowed to use public funds for their personal higher education choices.

Education savings accounts expand the kind of personalized learning that has long been available for higher education students but not for school-age children—like Austin Fox, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

Before 2011, when Arizona enacted the country’s first ESA program, Austin was a sophomore on the verge of dropping out of his public high school. “He wasn’t receiving an education,” explained Austin’s mother Crystal. “He was just being moved on.” All that changed once Arizona enacted ESAs.6

ESAs are akin to dedicated-use education debit cards. Parents who do not prefer a district or charter public school for their child simply withdraw him or her, and the state instead deposits most or all of the funds it would have spent into an ESA designated for that child. With those funds parents can pay for authorized education expenses including private school tuition, online courses, testing fees, homeschooling curricula, tutoring, and special education therapies. What’s more, any leftover funds remain in the child’s ESA and can be used for future education expenses, including eventually college.

When Crystal told Austin that he could choose any school he wanted thanks to his ESA, Austin says he was “overjoyed.” After touring a number of schools, Austin and his mother found one that he describes as “the perfect fit.” Austin’s teachers report that he came “out of his shell” and began thriving socially and academically. In fact, within just two years Austin’s grades soared from a C average to straight A’s, he earned high ACT and SAT scores, and upon graduation he had multiple college offers. Crystal credits the ESA program with “saving Austin’s life.”7

There is no good reason Oklahoma schoolchildren should be denied the educational opportunities a growing number of students like Austin now have.

Oklahoma's Educational Options

Oklahoma enacted its first private school parental choice program in 2010, the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities. Through this voucher program nearly 400 students with disabilities (or children of active-duty members of the armed forces who have been stationed in Oklahoma) are enrolled in almost 40 private schools of their parents’ choice using scholarships worth an average of $7,600. From 2012 through 2015 alone participation has nearly tripled, up from 135 students.8

The following year the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship program was enacted. It is one of the most generous programs around, with regular education student scholarships worth up to $5,000 or 80 percent of per-pupil public school spending, and up to $25,000 for special education students.

Students from low- to moderate-income families ($134,589 for a family of four in 2015-16) or those who attend or live in the attendance zone of a public school deemed “in need of improvement” are eligible. Oklahoma district schools earned an overall statewide performance grade of D+ (68 percent) in 2014, and 499 schools (28 percent) earned grades of D or F.9 More than 700 students are using tax-credit scholarships worth an average of $566 to attend 33 private schools of their parents’ choice. From 2013 through 2015 program participation has increased almost 20-fold, up from 38 students.10

Despite the growth of these programs, combined enrollment barely exceeds 1,000 students statewide—even though 15 percent of Oklahoma students meet the eligibility requirements for the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program, while 94 percent of families meet the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Program income-eligibility requirements.

It appears Oklahoma parents want more freedom not just over where their children are educated, but how they are educated.

Education Savings Accounts Offer Unlimited Choices

ESAs turn the prevailing one-size-fits-all wisdom of the schooling establishment on its head by personalizing learning to unprecedented levels.11 Not only are parents more satisfied having greater options, students are thriving academically and socially for less than what it costs in a typical public school setting. The rapid expansion of ESA programs also shows that there is tremendous demand for more customization in education—not less.

Since 2011 Arizona has annually expanded its ESA program to include more students, such as those who would otherwise attend failing public schools, students in or adopted from the foster care system, children of active duty military parents who reside in-state or who were killed in the line of duty, eligible kindergarteners, siblings of current and former ESA students, and children who reside within Indian reservation boundaries.12 The program is so popular that participation has roughly doubled each year, growing from around 130 students in 2011 to more than 1,300 today.13

The freedom to choose not simply where but how their children are educated results in high parental satisfaction with ESAs. Fully 100 percent of participating Arizona parents report being satisfied with the program, with 71 percent reporting they are “very satisfied.” In contrast, just 43 percent of parents reported any level of satisfaction with their children’s previous public schools.14

ESAs are also expanding to students well beyond the Grand Canyon State. Florida was the second state to adopt ESAs for special-needs students in 2014, and 1,700 students participated.15 The 2014-15 school year had barely finished when it was reported that close to 2,000 ESA applications had already been submitted for the upcoming school year.16 Meanwhile, in June 2015 funding for the program was tripled from $18 million to $54 million, and student eligibility was expanded to include a greater number of diagnosed disabilities.17

This is great news for Florida parents of special-needs children like Stacey, who reports that the freedom to use her young son’s education funding for the tailored services he needs has sparked dramatic improvements in his learning. “Liam … is reading on grade level, which is huge. … It’s helping his speech … and his overall communication has improved. …This program is just such a game-changer for parents.”18

These results are especially impressive since under existing programs ESAs are funded at just 90 percent of what states would have otherwise spent to educate students. They also undermine another common refrain that more spending—rather than more efficient spending—is what schools need to achieve better results.

In 2015 Mississippi,19 Tennessee,20 and Nevada also enacted ESAs. Nevada’s program stands out for making all public school students eligible, not just those with special educational needs or circumstances.21 If recent public opinion survey results are any indication, several more states will likely adopt ESAs as well.

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.

Vicki Alger


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.

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