YES on ESAs: Education system shouldn't prevent a choice to exit

by Kevin Magee

I’m a public-school teacher, and my dream is to open up a school and tutoring center that primarily serves underprivileged kids. This will be almost impossibly difficult without a program like Education Savings Accounts. Despite claiming to want to improve and modernize education, a lot of good people are fighting against a program that can achieve exactly that.

One practical effect of being against school choice measures such as ESAs is to grant only the rich and relatively well-off the ability to meaningfully exercise choice over their children’s education. They can afford private schools or choose to move to a neighborhood where there’s a school they like. For most however, that is a luxury, and unless there’s anyone out there in favor of banning private school and making it illegal to move, this is a glaring inequity.

Proponents of a public-school-only approach to education conflate public schools with public education more broadly. Publicly funded education, but not necessarily publicly managed schools, is still public education. Public schools are how most of us get our education, but they are one of many ways to educate a person. We’ve known since at least the 80s when it was closely studied, that one-to-one tutoring is a far more effective method for educating someone than a traditional classroom with 20-30 kids. ESAs will permit more diversity in our education system allowing parents to pursue alternate means of education like this.

Maybe some people just can’t stomach the thought of abandoning such a stable institution as public schools. After all, they’ve been with us, relatively unchanged, for over 150 years. But to some, that’s a bug, not a feature.

I understand skepticism about big, radical change, but the reality is that most people using ESAs will likely use them for private schools, which are very much known entities. There is no magical mechanism that makes public schools somehow educate children better than privately run schools. So at the very least, a switch from publicly managed to a more privately managed school system won’t look all that different. Add to that the fact that studies show strongly positive results on parental satisfaction among those who use school choice programs versus traditional public schools, and in the absolute worst case scenario you end up with a system that performs no worse, but in which parents are happier.

I’ve heard people claim that school choice destroys public schools, and even more inaccurately, that it destroys public education. It’s telling that public-school defenders openly recognize that, absent the de facto prohibition on parents’ ability to choose, we would likely have a different system. In other words, they assume that the only thing stopping “too many” parents from leaving the public-school system is their inability to afford it. That’s a pretty damning assumption coming from public school’s own advocates.

To say that ESA’s take funding from schools means that a particular school has a right over a particular student. This would be like saying I am destroying some of McDonalds’ profits every time I don’t eat there. Someone’s choice to not participate does not equate to actively destroying it.

This argument is also based on the idea that Nevada, and America in general, doesn’t spend enough on education, but this is hard to square with reality. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States spends more money per pupil on primary and secondary education than all other countries but Switzerland, Austria, Norway, and Luxemburg. While Nevada does spend below the national average, it’s right in line with the OECD average near countries like Japan, the United Kingdom, and Korea. If we’re spending roughly the same as Korea, whom many consider to have one of the best education systems around, and getting such different results, it’s clearly not a matter of funding.

There are ways to improve the ESA law. The funding level could be increased as part of a broad school funding reform. Simplify the Nevada Plan so that all education money, state and local, goes straight into the Distributed School Account. Then appropriate a matching per-pupil amount just for ESAs. This would dramatically increase the ESAs funding level, as well as equalize the state’s education funding formula, a goal of the left. Payouts for ESAs could even be made more progressive by further phasing down the payout based on income, which would free up money to get rid of the 100-day requirement.