January 23, 2018

Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos, (602) 543-6366, jimenzcastellanos@asu.edu
Daniel J. Quinn, (517) 203-2940, dquinn@greatlakescenter.org

Despite a lack of evidence, state policy makers are expanding voucher-like programs

EAST LANSING, Mich. (Jan. 23, 2018) — A new policy brief from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) explores the research on Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), a form of private-school vouchers first adopted in Arizona in 2011. Through December 2017, ESA laws have been enacted in six states and have been strongly promoted by school voucher advocates. The brief examines ESA policies, their similarities and differences with other voucher approaches, and examines the legal issues created by these programs.

Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos, Arizona State University, and William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner, University of Colorado Boulder, authored the brief, The State of Education Savings Account Programs in the United States. Jimenez-Castellanos is an associate professor in education policy and evaluation in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. The brief was made possible by support provided to NEPC by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

ESAs set-aside state funding on a per-pupil funding formula in individual accounts for participating families. In addition to private and religious schooling, ESAs can be used for tutoring, online courses, and transportation. These programs differ from conventional school vouchers and tax-credit scholarships (another voucher-like policy), but they similarly divert public monies into the private marketplace.

According to the authors, Arizona's program (the nation's first) was designed to "work around state constitutional prohibitions preventing using public money to fund private schools, particularly religious schools."

According to the policy brief, the research evidence on ESA policies is quite limited and the majority of ESA literature has been provided by conservative think tanks advocating for expansion. Therefore, the authors suggest that the best evidence is likely found in the research on conventional voucher programs. Overall, the authors caution that the existing research literature on vouchers and voucher-like programs raises serious questions about their performance.

The brief also provides six important questions that policy makers should ask to ensure accountability and address issues of access and segregation regarding ESA policies.

Jimenez-Castellanos, Mathis, and Welner offer the following policy recommendations to states with existing ESA policies and those designing new policies:

  1. Policymakers should be wary of adopting or expanding an ESA program in light of the lack of any empirical evidence to support them and in light of their potential adverse effects.
  2. Legislatures in states with existing ESA programs should mandate and fund comprehensive program evaluation systems to determine their programs' impact on students, families, schools, districts and states.
  3. Legislatures designing new programs should routinely include mandated and funded comprehensive evaluation systems.

In conclusion, the authors note "policymakers should be extremely wary of adopting or expanding an ESA program. When considering ESAs, policymakers from all perspectives must carefully weigh the evidence on their impact on key elements of U.S. education."

Find the policy brief on the web:

The brief can also be found on the NEPC website:

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The mission of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice is to support and disseminate high quality research and reviews of research for the purpose of informing education policy and to develop research-based resources for use by those who advocate for education reform.

Visit the Great Lakes Center website at http://www.greatlakescenter.org/