Editor’s note: Martin F. Leuken, director of the Fiscal Research and Education Center at EdChoice, wrote this commentary for the Ripon Society, a public policy organization that promotes the ideas and principles that have contributed to the Republican Party’s success.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 was widely hailed as the “Year of Educational Choice.” That year, 18 states created or expanded educational choice programs. Today, most states have educational choice programs, with 32 states operating 76 programs.
This shouldn’t surprise us. Support for private school choice is high, with more than 70% of school parents supporting education savings account programs, vouchers, and charter schools.
Research backs up parents’ assessment. Overall, the large body of rigorous research on choice programs indicate that these programs tend to accrue benefits to not only students who participate in them, but also for families, public schools, and communities.
Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of voucher programs based on all available random assignment research. They estimated an overall positive effect on test scores for students who participated in these programs. Moreover, students performed better the longer they remained in their program.
Participating parents are also overwhelmingly satisfied with their choices. Parents often indicate school safety as one of the top reasons for choosing, and empirical research provides evidence that choice improves school climate and safety.
Benefits also accrue to communities by making schools more integrated and improving civic outcomes for students. Researchers attribute greater tolerance for the rights for others, increased civic knowledge, reduced criminal activity, and increased volunteerism, social capital, and voter participation to choice programs.
State policymakers looking to improve their education system through educational choice should look to Arizona for inspiration. Arizona is home to some of the largest and oldest choice programs in the nation, and it continues to pursue ways to expand educational opportunities for families.
In fact, Arizona recently passed the most expansive education choice program in the country, though opponents are working to refer the expansion to the 2024 ballot for voter approval.
Arizona expanded its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESA, program to all K-12 students in the state. Every child in Arizona, regardless of race, gender, or income, would be eligible 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 would receive an even higher amount that corresponds with their needs.
States shouldn’t shy away from choice programs such as Arizona’s. After all, among the different kinds of choice programs, ESA programs like Arizona’s offer the greatest flexibility for families and enjoy the highest support.
ESA programs allow families to access part or all of their child’s public school funding and use those funds for a variety of education-related services. Families can use ESA funds not only to pay for private schools, micro schools, or home schools, but they can access other services such as tutoring, therapies, and online courses.
Fundamentally, a universal ESA program realigns incentives in states so that education dollars are used more effectively compared to current institutional arrangements. The flexibility from ESAs increases competition among education service providers and incentivizes providers to control costs. Such incentives are absent in the traditional public school system, which has long been the dominant provider of K-12 education and costs for public school systems have inexorably risen for decades.
Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman’s perceptive insight explains this dynamic: when bureaucrats spend other people’s money on someone else’s children, they don’t care as much about cost or value. Staffing surges and rising pension costs present examples of consequences from this arrangement.
With an ESA program like Arizona’s, the state empowers 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.
Despite having choice programs for decades, however, choice opponents routinely voice concerns that these programs harm public schools. They don’t. In fact, public school students on average experience gains in test scores when states implement private school choice programs.
A meta-analysis studying these competitive effects wrote, “In general, competition resulting from school-choice policies does have a small positive effect on student achievement. The lack of an overall negative impact on student outcomes might ease critics’ concerns that competition will hurt those students ‘left behind’ due to school-choice policies.”
Educational choice is a commonsense policy to fix the adverse incentives underlying the public system by placing parents where they belong: in the driver’s seat of their own children’s education.