Equity, opportunity, efficiency: The future of K-12 funding has arrived

Editor’s note: This commentary from Marty Lueken, director of the Fiscal Research and Education Center at EdChoice, and James Shuls, a fellow at EdChoice, first appeared on washingtonexaminer.com.

Fifty years ago, public education advocates began fighting for equity in public school funding. They looked forward to a day when every student, even those from disadvantaged backgrounds, could receive a high-quality education regardless of their ZIP code.

And while those advocates made progress in closing funding gaps, dollars and cents alone could never overcome the reality that assigning students to schools means assigning some students to schools that don’t meet their needs.

To promote equality truly, we must also promote educational options.

The future of education spending is one that prioritizes equity, efficiency, and opportunity. As we wrote in our 2019 paper, “ The Future of K-12 Funding ,” ideal systems of funding K–12 education for children will indicate that we, as a society, desire to serve all students, that we are concerned with being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, and that we want to provide the best educational opportunity for every child.

We’re much closer to achieving that vision today than we ever have been before.

With recent legislative action, Arizona expanded its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts , or ESA, program to all K-12 students in the state. This program allows every child, regardless of race, gender, income, or background, to receive a scholarship account worth about $7,000 per year to use at the school of his or her family’s choice. Students with special needs receive an even higher amount, commensurate with their needs.

It is easy to see how this system increases equity and opportunity. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, funding portability would have allowed families to leave the public school districts that stayed closed and send their children to a school that prioritized a return to in-person learning.

We know from the data that students who were able to do this suffered much less learning loss than students stuck in “Zoom school.” Disadvantaged students and students with special needs suffered particularly devastating consequences. Programs like Arizona’s ESA would have made sure those children weren’t left behind.

Or, consider the students stuck in struggling inner-city schools, which outspend their suburban counterparts significantly but still fail to graduate half of their students. ESAs provide an opportunity for escape.

The same is true for the rural student who needs flexibility or opportunities not afforded to him in his local school.

This system of choice also increases efficiency for students and taxpayers. By allowing families to direct their education dollars, Arizona is helping more students find the educational arrangement that works best for them.

This system allows students to access a menu of education-related goods and services since families are no longer confined to traditional school models. This flexibility increases competition among providers, which in turn results in downward pressure on providers to control costs. This is something not seen in the traditional public education system, in which costs continue to skyrocket .

Economist Milton Friedman’s keen insight on how to spend money illustrates this dynamic. He noted we have two options when spending money: You can spend your money or someone else’s money, and you can spend money on yourself or on someone else. We are always more efficient when we spend our own money, and we tend to care more about the quality of goods and services we purchase for ourselves.

The public school monopoly is a lesson on what happens when bureaucrats spend other people’s money on someone else’s children. They have little concern for cost and little care for value.

With an ESA program like Arizona’s, the state equips parents to spend their own publicly funded ESA dollars on their own children. We can expect parents will seek the highest value in education services they can purchase for their children, which will benefit both families and the state alike.

In fact, research is quite clear that the state experiences fiscal benefits from these types of programs.

But this isn’t just about fiscal reform. It’s about shaping up the educational dynamic entirely and reworking it to fit the needs of students and their families better.

By scrapping the old system of residential-based schooling and adopting truly unencumbered choice, Arizona has created a funding system for education that lives up to our values as Americans. The future of school funding has arrived, and Arizona is leading the way.

Which states will follow?