Refuting Careless Myths about ESAs

Last week, Pennsylvania’s education committees held a hearing on education savings accounts (ESAs). This transformative policy allows parents to customize an educational plan based on the unique needs of their children. Passing ESA legislation will satisfy parents, help students grow, and improve the quality of education in the commonwealth.

Unfortunately, opponents of parental choice are unwilling—or unable—to have an honest conversation about the merits of ESAs. In a PennLive op-ed, Susan Spicka, director for Education Voters of PA, insists (without evidence) that ESAs “do not improve educational opportunities for all students.”

Spicka repeatedly conflates ESAs with other school choice initiatives, claiming ESAs are an “underhanded attempt to re-brand extremely unpopular school voucher programs.” One of the few statistics cited by Spicka was not even about ESAs, but Indiana’s voucher program.

To be clear, ESAs are not school vouchers. In fact, an Arizona appeals court ruled that ESAs were perfectly constitutional precisely because they are not vouchers.

While vouchers send public funds to directly pay private schools, ESAs provide parents with a flexible spending account, funded with public dollars, that can be used for a variety of educational services including textbooks, tutoring, curriculum, or educational therapies. As the Arizona court stated, “The specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools.”

These restricted-use accounts would improve accountability in Pennsylvania’s education system by incentivizing parents to become more involved in their children’s academic and social needs. In 2015, an audit of Arizona's ESA program found virtually no fraudulent purchases, proving that parents are plenty capable of allocating resources to suit their children.

Far from being “extremely unpopular,” ESAs satisfy parents more than their previous public school district. According to a survey on Arizona’s ESA program, “no parent responded as neutral or reported any dissatisfaction with the accounts.” Even the term “voucher” is more popular than Spicka lets on: A recent poll from EducationNext finds that a plurality of Americans favor school vouchers.

Undeterred, Spicka takes issue with Arizona’s ESA program, arguing that most recipients are families in high achieving school districts. Yet, according to an Arizona Republic article cited by Spicka, students leaving better-rated schools tend to be those with learning disabilities.

The same article notes that 58 percent of Arizona’s ESA participants have special needs, which is conveniently omitted by Spicka. Arizona’s program also serves previously fostered or adopted children, students in failing schools, military families, and children from Indian reservations.

Finally, Spicka falsely claims that religious schools can “discriminate against any student for any reason,” including skin color and disability.

The Supreme Court ruled against private schools ability to discriminate on the basis of race, which would violate the IRS’ requirements for tax-exempt status. Federal law also mandates private, as well as sectarian, schools to provide reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities.

The misinformation in Spicka’s article demonstrates that opponents of school choice are more concerned with sensationalizing a false narrative than confronting reality.