Education savings accounts are available to all of the state’s 385,000 public-school students.
Nevada recently became the fifth state to enact the nation’s most systemic K-12 funding reform: education savings accounts. ESAs allow parents to pull their children out of public schools and put the allotted tax dollars toward an education they prefer. This makes the phrase “school choice” a reality.
Unlike vouchers, which make public dollars available only for private-school tuition, the savings accounts can be used for a range of educational options, for private schools or distance learning, tutoring, computer software, educational therapies, public-school classes and activities, and community college classes. Any money left after graduation can be put toward college. This will give Nevada parents more than $5,000 to work with.
Education savings accounts are an innovation; they harness the capacity of modern technology to deliver high-quality, tailored education to every child in the state. Families can mix and match educational offerings to meet their children’s needs and aptitudes, perhaps combining interactive distance learning with a local high-school chemistry lab and a tutor in mathematics.
The savings accounts, first proposed a decade ago by the Goldwater Institute, where I work, weren’t pressed into service until 2009. That’s when the Arizona Supreme Court struck down school vouchers for disabled and foster children under the state’s Blaine Amendment, which forbids the use of public funds in private or sectarian schools. Vouchers violated the Blaine Amendment, the court reasoned, because they could only be used in private schools.
But what if public funds were available not only for private schools but also for a broad array of educational options? The Arizona Legislature enacted ESAs for disabled and foster children, depositing 90% of each child’s state education funds into an account featuring a debit card that can be used to purchase educational services from public or private providers. Local school property taxes remain untouched and available to public schools.
Like vouchers, education savings accounts were challenged in court for violating the Blaine Amendment in 2011. But because the funds were not limited to private schools, the legality of ESAs was upheld. As Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Jon Thompson observed in a 2013 ruling, “Parents can use the funds deposited in the . . . account to customize an education that meets their children’s unique educational needs.” Arizona has expanded ESA eligibility to include children in public schools receiving D or F grades and military families. Legislation sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Carlyle Begay to provide ESAs for children on Indian reservations goes into effect this fall.
Last year, Florida—whose Supreme Court also had earlier struck down vouchers—enacted ESAs for severely disabled children. The savings accounts are especially useful for families whose children have special needs that require individualized approaches that often are not found in public schools. As in Arizona, ESAs were challenged in court and upheld.
This year education savings accounts were enacted in three states where earlier there was resistance to school choice: Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada. The savings accounts in the first two states are limited to children with special needs.
But Nevada’s program is available to all of the state’s 385,000 public-school students. Most children will receive 90% of the state’s education contribution, or about $5,100. But children with disabilities or in low-income families will receive the full per-pupil amount, roughly $5,700. For the first time since the nation’s first voucher program was enacted in Milwaukee 25 years ago, this year more than half of the states plus the District of Columbia have some form of private school choice.
Teachers unions fiercely opposed the bill. “This is a ploy by those who deplore public education and want to destroy it,” charged Democratic state Sen. Joyce Woodhouse. But that tired argument lost.
The emergence of education savings accounts may mark the beginning of the end for an ossified education-delivery system that is has changed little since the 19th century. It begins an important shift of government from a monopoly provider of education into an enabler of education in whatever form or forum it most benefits the child.
By reducing the need for bureaucracies and capital construction, education savings accounts can reverse the ever-growing costs of public education, even as the accounts provide resources for families to save for college. They can help surmount Blaine Amendment obstacles that appear in about two-thirds of state constitutions. Most important, they hitch public policy to infinite technological possibilities, creating the first truly 21st-century education model wherein public funding follows the child.
Mr. Bolick is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute.