ESAs don’t need the charter treatment
A conflict of visions for education choice
Gather round everyone, it’s that time of the year where we debate the proper role of government in regulating education choice options.1
In a recent Fordham Institute blog, Checker Finn expresses skepticism about the wave of universal-eligibility ESA programs across the country that give parents wide latitude on how to spend education funds. He believes the effort may backfire: parents will make bad choices, providers will offer low-quality options, some kids may get left behind because of “lousy” or “abusive” parents, and so on.
Finn says he is “wary, particularly of the free-swinging, almost-anything-goes version of universal ESAs.” Instead, he calls for a “judicious phasing-in and monitoring of universal ESA programs,” where “regulators and managers can set and enforce clear guidelines as to what is and isn’t allowable.”
That sounds a lot like the charter school approach — and for good reason.
Despite repeated claims of, “no really, we do like ESAs!,” plenty of ed reformers have looked on with skepticism since ESAs entered the market. ESAs are a libertarian fantasyland! Charters are scalable, replicable, and enjoy(ed) bipartisan support. Boston, NYC, and NOLA are models of great parent-government relations!
As Fordham’s Mike Petrilli astutely wrote in a 2015 blog titled, “ESAs aren’t for everyone”:
… if your primary goal is to significantly raise student achievement as it is traditionally defined (test scores, graduation rates, college attainment, etc.), especially for disadvantaged children, education savings accounts are probably not the way to go. Instead, you’d want to … create the conditions for high-performing, “no-excuses” charter schools (or voucher schools) to thrive. You would want to put in place a strong authorizer, ample funding, and a charter-friendly law and work to build a great charter sector like those in place in cities like Boston, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia.
The constant rift does not come down to program design. It stems from a conflict of visions.
On one side of the debate are those who are mostly fine with the structure of education in America. They just want to reform some parts of it. The goal is to increase student test scores, increase graduation rates, get more kids accepted into college. They wait with bated breath for the release of NAEP scores and consider it a position of honor to get a sneak peek before the results go public. There are heated debates about whether Calculus or Data Science should be in the scope and sequence of what high schoolers learn.
It’s a vision that is largely planned by experts to minimize exposure to what they would deem low quality. It’s called controlled choice for a reason.
That’s not my vision.
I support ESAs as a means to an end – to provide as many students, parents, and educators with the tools (financial, regulatory, socially) to create new and unique learning environments that are responsive to their needs — not the needs of regulators or some vague idea of “society.” A great school for one kid may be a terrible school for another, and vice versa.
One side is obsessively focused on optimizing the existing system and is fine with (maybe even prefers) limiting space for new approaches to be tried. The other side (my side) sees de-risked innovation as an oxymoron and believes that hyperlocal experimentation is the way to drive progress.
This isn’t hypothetical. Over the past few years we’ve seen a large increase in homeschooling, microschools, co-ops, co-learning centers, hybrid schools, and many other bottom-up, family-focused, largely uncategorizable endeavors. Not exactly a recipe for a strong regulatory regime.
ESAs are a bridge to different, not just better, a sentiment supported by many in the public according to recent polling from Populace.
This is a moment of upheaval in education — fueled by unprecedented parent and educator openness to alternatives — and the advice being offered is to slow down and let the bureaucrats catch up.
We’ve seen this before.
I’m a long-time charter school supporter, and actively worked to pass and improve charter school legislation in my past. Charters serve a purpose — but that purpose is quite clearly not to create paths for educators and parents to create schools that challenge the predominant approaches to education.
The laudable impulse to concentrate first on poor, minority kids trapped in abysmal inner-city schools contributed to charters getting the reputation for just being places for poor, minority inner-city dwellers to attend. There's a certain sameness across much of the charter world and (save perhaps for virtual schools) not enough real innovation. The R&D quality of charters has eroded, along with the vision of the late Albert Shanker, longtime head of the American Federation of Teachers, that charters would emerge as teacher-created, teacher-run schools.
There are many great charter schools across the country, and many I would be happy to have my own children attend. But as an effort in systems change, the charter sector has been a story of “judicious phasing-in and monitoring” where “regulators and managers can set and enforce clear guidelines as to what is and isn’t allowable.”
The original bargain for charter schools – autonomy for accountability – has tilted in favor of “accountability.” It’s created a paperwork pile up that requires hundreds of hours of work, lawyers and political figures, a seven-figure budget, full staff, etc. – before you can even serve a kid. Charter authorizers are so doctrinaire about what good looks like, that in demand approaches like Montessori face steep challenges to getting and keeping a charter.
The problem with deference to regulators and managers is that they are generally disinterested in innovation. In fact, their role is quite literally to curb innovation by managing for risk.
Meanwhile, some parents are using ESA funds in ways that many experts have a problem with. Here are some expenditures that have come out of the Arizona program, as noted recently in The 74:
a small robot that teaches coding
a kit to build a simple scooter
horseback riding lessons
ice skating and sword casting classes
board games, puzzles and Legos
chicken coops, justified as science curriculum
trampolines, justified as physical education
tickets to Sea World
taekwondo classes, justified as physical education
a Time-Life series on the history of aviation
a book on chemical reactions involved in cooking for a child interested in culinary arts
participation in an animal club similar to 4-H, where a child is studying rabbits’ anatomy and nutrition
To some, it’s a terrifying prospect to give parents this much freedom to pay for “the things that we scrape the couch cushions for,’ as one ESA opponent commented. To me, these items seem like validations of the program’s success.
Mike Goldstein, an educator from Boston, noted that not only do these seem like good expenses, there are teachers across the country taking to crowdfunding websites to purchase these very things. The site DonorsChoose alone yields 5 pages of teachers looking to buy chicken coops.
I’m quite sure that there will be instances of parents misspending ESA funds — as is the case with any program (I’ll gladly provide a list of misspent funds in public schools). There are already practices in place to prevent and remedy fraud within ESA programs, which has the full support of ESA backers.
But there will be many, many more subjective expenses like those bulleted above. I am quite skeptical of the idea of benevolent regulators finding the right balance between preventing objectively inappropriate uses (which there are already controls to limit) and giving parents wide latitude to experiment with subjective uses. I’ve seen enough regulatory capture and risk aversion to be skeptical.
As 50CAN’s Derrell Bradford noted in a front-runner for ‘23’s best essay:
What’s needed is a true education marketplace, with direct funding to families as its foundational element. Without a marketplace of this kind, there will never be real reform. It’s essential if we hope to create the education system of the future.
Let’s not hold up a system of the future by constraining ourselves to mental models from the past.
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