As private school choice spreads, implementation is imperative

Editor’s note: This commentary appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Education Next.

America is in the midst of a parental choice revolution. In the past few months, five states—Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Utah and West Virginia—have adopted education savings account, or ESA, programs, which extend private-school-choice eligibility to all or most K-12 students.

These programs provide students with public resources for an array of education expenses, including tuition, micro-schooling, homeschooling, education therapies, and tutoring. Florida and Texas may soon join them, and other states seemed poised to adopt more modest private-school-choice programs.

Recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a strong parental-choice supporter, questioned the wisdom of universal ESA programs, remarking, “I’d like to see the focus remain on … low income [and] middle class” families. DeSantis’s position is not unreasonable. For decades, parental-choice advocates have emphasized the need to expand the educational opportunities available to kids who lack the financial resources to exit public schools that fail them.

As Howard Fuller, an architect of the nation’s voucher program, once observed, parental choice is today “more of a rescue mission than a fight for broad societal change.” And Florida leads the nation in advancing that mission. Although 30 states have at least one private-school-choice program, nearly 25% of participating students reside in Florida, which has four.

There is tension between universal eligibility and this traditional case for parental choice: In universal programs, resources will necessarily go to wealthy children who do not need to be rescued. This is one reason that, until last summer, all private-school-choice programs restricted eligibility in one or more ways.

Unfortunately, as I detail in a new Manhattan Institute report, eligibility restrictions often impede the effective implementation of private-school-choice programs. While means-testing is relatively straightforward, it is frequently paired with other eligibility restrictions that undercut program effectiveness.

For example, both parents and participating schools find it difficult to navigate programs limited to students attending “failing” public schools or school districts, as currently proposed in pending legislation in Georgia. Not only do most private schools draw students from multiple school districts, but the criteria for designating districts and public schools as “failing” vary across states (and from year to year within them); they are also subject to manipulation by regulators.

Restricting eligibility to students who were previously enrolled in a district public school—another common eligibility requirement—saves money. But it also excludes otherwise-eligible students currently enrolled in private schools, which can generate resentment among families who have sacrificed to pay private school tuition.

Moreover, studies suggest that students almost always suffer some short-term learning loss when switching schools, so “switching” requirements are harmful to student learning. When these three eligibility restrictions—means-testing, a “failing” school or district, and prior public school enrollment—are combined, the result is many program participants arriving at their new schools in need of substantial remediation.

Other design elements also pose significant barrier to private-school-choice success. Approximately half of existing programs rely on tax policy to incentivize donations to nonprofits providing private-school scholarships. Many of these “scholarship-tax-credit” programs provide less than a one-for-one credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations, impeding effective fundraising.

For example, legislation pending in Nebraska would give donors a 50% tax credit for donations to a support private-school scholarships. Not surprisingly, fundraising efforts in these programs often fall short, and the scholarships amounts provided through them are lower than voucher and ESA programs.

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