ESAs and the next wave of education innovation

Travis Pillow

Backers of the newest generation of educational choice programs seem to have found a favorite analogy. Education savings accounts, they’ll often say, are like the smartphones of school choice.

A parallel for backers of education savings accounts. (Wikimedia Commons)

A parallel for backers of education savings accounts. (Wikimedia Commons)

To skeptics, might sound like another lazy tech metaphor in education reform, but there’s a reason the parallel between education savings accounts and iPhones has caught on.

Advocates of ESAs hope to create a system in which parents to use state funding to cover a wide range of education expenses tailored to their children’s needs.

They hope that, in turn, will create a platform for new education providers, some of which may be hard to envision today — much like Uber or Waze or Instagram would have been hard to imagine eight or nine years ago.

“An ESA is suddenly the operating system,” Nevada state Sen. Scott Hammond, who helped write the country’s most ambitious education savings account law, said during a panel discussion at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual policy summit last week. The hope, he said, is that in the coming years, “we’ll be able to come up with all kinds of apps that you can use the operating system for.”

Many of those applications don’t exist yet. Many parents now use the accounts the same way they might use ordinary school vouchers — to pay for private school tuition.

Even in Arizona, home to the country’s most mature ESA law, tuition remains the most common expense. Forthcoming research, teased this month in the journal Education Next, shows more than one in four parents do use the accounts to pay for a multiple educational services.

Derrell Bradford of the New York Campaign for Acheivement Now, said that if ESAs catch on, in the coming years people will increasingly “go from buying schools to buying education.”

“Education” could mean curriculum, purchased by groups of parents who work together to teach their children at home. It could mean a new breed of specialized tutors, or new approaches to virtual education, or new schools that specialize in a single subject.

Here, the iPhone parallel might be instructive. When the its first came out in 2007, some competitors were nonplussed, and skeptics urged Apple to pull the plug. The cellphone market, they argued, was already saturated. Even positive reviews mostly saw the device as a fancy phone that could play lots of music. They didn’t see it for what it would become: A pocket computer that would replace dozens of other gadgets. It took years for that leap to occur.

Right now, skeptics in places like Nevada often focus on a shortage of traditional private schools. If ESAs work as intended, they won’t just spawn new private schools. They will also power the creation of new options outside the private-school system.

The time may be right for programs that let parents decide how money is spent to educate their children. Home schooling and other forms of educational choice have become mainstream. Technology has made new digital tools available. States facing a fiscal squeeze might welcome more innovation and competition in publicly funded services like education.

History is littered cautionary tales, like the Newton, Apple’s earlier, near-forgotten attempt to create a portable device which, for all its innovative foresight, never caught on. It’s also possible ESAs will work best for specific groups, like the special-needs students who use Florida’s Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts*.

Right now, they are still in an experimental stage, as states tinker with different approaches to how the accounts are administered, who’s eligible, and how programs are funded and regulated.

Some advocates wish Nevada’s program would put more money in the hands of students, like those from low-income families, who often aren’t well-served by the existing education system. (We’ve talked to people with different perspectives on this issue here, here and here).

Last week, Hammond, the Nevada state senator, said his state wanted a breakthrough. Other states looking to copy his state’s experiment should also look for ways to improve on it.

“That’s what happens with innovators,” he said. “The first ones through the wall always get a little bloody.”

*Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog and employs the author of this post, helps administer Florida’s scholarship accounts.

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