The great Virginia statesman John Randolph of Roanoke, a passionate advocate for education and a devotee of limited government, once said that the “most delicious of all privileges [is] spending other people’s money.”
That remark has proven especially true in the era of Covid-19. For our government, the economically prudent decision would have been to avoid shutting down entire economies in the first place. Congress elected to harvest the money fields instead. The sum of a half-dozen separate stimulus packages totaled nearly $4 trillion in spending.
Much of this stimulus has gone toward K-12 education. FutureEd, a nonpartisan education think tank at Georgetown University, noted that the CARES Act allocated roughly $13 billion towards public education, the Consolidated Appropriations Act earmarked $54 billion, and the American Rescue Plan directed a whopping $128 billion. The House Democrats’ $3.5 trillion proposal would include another $761 billion towards K-12 schools, and $450 billion toward universal Pre-K and childcare.
At face value, these numbers are absurd. Even more infuriating is the fact that state education agencies and school boards are sitting on what they have already been allocated. While some of the early stimulus rounds were spent on PPE and cleaning supplies, the money from the American Rescue Plan is still just sitting there — and it’s billions of dollars. Many districts plan on waiting until as late as 2028 to dip into these funds.
But this isn’t anything new. Since 1960, public education spending per student has increased by 280%, yet test scores have only increased by modest margins at best. It’s become abundantly clear that throwing seemingly endless amounts of money at public schools does nothing for those who the institution is designed to serve: students.
Families are tired of the politics, the drama, and the wasted investments. Their anger is righteous and justified. But if we want these feelings to translate into meaningful policy, the country must get behind education savings accounts (ESAs).
Essentially, ESAs allow parents to break free from the public school they have been assigned to. They then receive a deposit of public funds into a government-authorized savings account. While this account, which is more often than not accessed through a debit card, is restricted to educational uses, it still offers enough flexibility for parents to be able to educate their children however they wish.
Prior to 2021, only five states — Mississippi, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee — offered some form of ESA. Since then, nearly a dozen more have passed some form of private school choice expansion, with the broadest coming from New Hampshire.
In June, New Hampshire established Education Freedom Accounts, which will be available for families living within 300% of the federal poverty level (equal to roughly 30% of New Hampshire’s student population). Each eligible family will receive $4,600, which can be used on a variety of education-related expenses, from extra books and supplies to private school tuition.
The results from other states speak for themselves. In Arizona, the introduction of ESAs led to an increase in per-pupil spending while alleviating pressure on the state budget. Furthermore, in both Arizona and Mississippi, parents reported extremely high rates of satisfaction with their ESAs. There is no reason this progress would be stifled by broader expansion.
The districts and states we’re up against are used to getting their way. For instance, several years back, Seattle Public Schools spent $3,800 in taxpayer dollars for a retirement party, and they may have overpaid staff by more than $335,000 during the 2008-2009 school year. When you have a monopoly on education, you can do whatever you want.
But ESAs are game-changers. When the cost of providing an ESA to a student is less than the cost of sending them to a district school (which it often is), the students who leave public school districts actually generate savings.
Moreover, districts will often retain revenue collected from property taxes and federal distributions, meaning that they’ll start spending more per student. With more competition in the area, the public school no longer has a monopoly, meaning they have to spend more on students. Administrative bloat, after all, doesn’t win you many patrons.
Centering our education system around parental choice is both the past and the future. It’s the present that’s the aberration. By implementing ESAs, we can help children succeed, improve efficiency and effectiveness in our public schools, and save taxpayers money.
Americans don’t have to abide by the government’s delusion of farming magical money fields forever — especially when it involves kids. Throwing more and more money at public schools has done very little, and it’s time for a change.
Government will always be in our pockets, one way or another. With ESAs, at least the decision-making power is in the hands of American families and not greedy bureaucrats who don’t care about you or this country.
If you’re angry about these ludicrous spending bills, the time to demand another option is now, and it all starts with schools. We’re in a mess, but ESAs could help guide us out.