Shifting Tides in the School Choice Debate


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In recognition of National School Choice Week this week, we’re publishing a series of guest blog posts about various school choice issues. This post, written by Ben Erwin of the National Conference of State Legislatures, is the first of three. For more general information on school choice across all 50 states, be sure to see our comprehensive list of resources.

As this year’s legislative sessions kick off, looking back at last year’s school choice efforts can provide insight for the work ahead. While no new states enacted school choice legislation in 2017, more states entered the debate — and the focus of the debate has shifted.

Namely, Education Savings Accounts have emerged as the popular alternative to traditional school vouchers. Currently, six states have ESAs. (Arizona was the first in 2011.) While vouchers and tax-credit scholarships have remained consistent private school choice proposals, the explosion of ESA proposals indicates legislators’ increasing interest in this strategy for choice expansion. In fact, the number of states that introduced legislation authorizing ESAs doubled from 13 in 2016 to 26 in 2017, and the volume of ESA proposals witnessed a corresponding increase. Despite limited adoption of ESA plans, many of these proposals have been carried over, so they are sure to be at the forefront of the education debate in 2018.

ESAs purportedly provide a means to bypass Blaine Amendments — which have precluded traditional vouchers by preventing the allocation of public funding to religiously affiliated private schools — while still operating under the same premise. In many ways, ESA policies provide a greater degree of parental autonomy by expanding options for the acceptable use of funds beyond tuition and applying less stringent accountability standards to participating private schools. This framework allows parents and students even more flexibility to serve as decision-makers than under a traditional voucher framework.

The autonomy ESAs provide parents has also raised objections and questions that are largely consistent with objections to traditional school vouchers. Funding and accountability provide the two main sticking points in the ESA debate. Other significant questions for policymakers include:

  • How ESAs will be funded (public education funds or a different fund).
  • Whether there will be a cap on state funds for ESAs.
  • How the money can be spent.
  • How student and private school eligibility will be determined or capped.
  • Whether participating private schools’ academic performance will be measured and regulated.

Crafting policy that ensures equitable implementation and high-quality educational options will be vital to the success of ESAs. For more information on ESAs, see NCSL’s report, The Next Generation of School Vouchers: Education Savings Accounts.

Author profile
Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States |

As a policy analyst, Ben works on tracking legislation, answering information requests and contributing to other Policy Team projects. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, he taught high school social studies in Kentucky and worked in education policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures. He earned a master's degree in education policy from the University of Colorado Boulder and a bachelor's degree in history and education from Transylvania University.

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