In the vision laid out by their strongest supporters, education savings accounts have the potential to revolutionize public education, giving parents direct control of funding and allowing them to assemble customized educational programs for their children, buying services from private schools, public schools, home-school curriculum providers, and more. Plain-vanilla school choice could start to seem passé. Parents could save money left over at the end of the school year for future expenses, including college, giving them a greater incentive to shop around and economize.
That’s the theory. On Wednesday, during an American Enterprise Institute event that billed ESAs as “the new frontier in school choice,” Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute said he wanted to throw some “cold water” on it. The programs might work for some students — like those with special needs — who tend to qualify for larger weighted per-pupil funding, and for whom the benefits of a fully customized education are obvious. But when it comes to their potential to totally transform the broader education system, Eden said he was skeptical.
“There’s a sense throughout [the nine papers presented at AEI’s event] that this will explode in numbers and in scope, and I’m very skeptical of that,” he said. ESAs may be more likely to create “a marginal system that will provide marginal support to relatively marginalized students.”
In the end, he said, “The prime benefit of ESAs may help make the world even safer for charters.” If more legislatures pushed for them, that might broaden the window of political possibility for educational choice. And ESAs could provide new options for children, like those with special needs, whom charter schools often struggle to serve well. “I don’t know that I see [ESAs] being an explosive and revolutionary thing,” Eden said.
Matthew Ladner, a senior policy adviser to the Foundation for Excellence in Education who’s been a leading proponent of ESAs as a concept, said Eden made some valid points.