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Research & Commentary: Universal ESA Program Would Provide Access to Quality Schools for All West Virginia Children

January 29, 2019

Universal ESA Program Would Bring West Virginia To The Forefront Of The Education Choice Movement

West Virginia is currently considering an omnibus education bill that includes a provision to establish a universal education savings account (ESA) program. If passed, ESAs would be available to parents of public school children to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, as well as schools providing career and technical education. The funds could also be used to pay for textbooks, tutoring services, transportation costs, computers, and other approved hardware, online courses, dual-enrollment courses, and educational therapies and services.

Additionally, the ESAs could be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT and ACT. The funding amount of each account would be equivalent to 75 percent of the amount allotted per pupil under the school aid formula. Leftover funds could be rolled over for use in subsequent school years and would be available to help pay for tuition at postsecondary schools.

Copious empirical research on ESAs and other school choice programs finds these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. 

Students at private schools are also less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs such as ESAs improve the mental health of participating students.

It is probably for these reasons that ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. The results of EdChoice’s sixth annual Schooling in America survey, released in December 2018, found 74 percent of respondents favor ESAs, up 3 percentage points from 2017. According to the survey, support for ESAs is 76 percent among Millennials, 72 percent for those with incomes under $40,000 a year, 79 percent for blacks, 70 percent for Hispanics, 72 percent among self-identified Democrats, and 77 percent among independents. Furthermore, 78 percent of public school teachers surveyed support ESA programs.

These results are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s latest annual National School Choice Poll, which shows 78 percent support for ESA programs from likely voters in the 2020 election. Support for ESAs in this poll sits at 84 percent among Millennials, 86 percent from blacks, 84 percent from Hispanics, 85 percent from Republicans, 78 percent from independents, and 73 percent from Democrats.

Recent polling in West Virginia shows voters view ESA programs favorably and are not very satisfied with the current shape of the state’s public school system. A February 2017 poll conducted by the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy found 56 percent of respondents are in favor of an ESA program in the Mountain State. Forty-eight percent said they think public schools are either “poor” or “failing.”

Currently, private school choice in West Virginia is literally nonexistent. The school a child attends should not be determined solely by his or her ZIP code. However, this is currently the case for almost all West Virginia children. The goal of public education in the Mountain State should be to enable all parents, no matter their income level, to choose which schools their children attend.

Public schools should not hold a monopoly on education. By implementing an ESA program, legislators can ensure all West Virginia children have the opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information on education savings accounts.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/education-savings-accounts-the-future-of-school-choice-has-arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

West Virginia and Education Savings Accounts
https://www.cardinalinstitute.com/app/uploads/2016/09/WV_ESA_Study_091916-1.pdf
This study by the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, published in September 2016, concludes West Virginia would benefit from the implementation of education savings accounts (ESAs). The study also explores the impact of ESA programs in states such as Arizona and details how a similar program would improve the Mountain State’s education system

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
http://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/A-Win-Win-Solution-The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Choice.pdf
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

2018 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent and Teacher Experiences, Accountability, and School Choice
https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2018-12-Schooling-In-America-by-Paul-DiPerna-and-Michael-Shaw.pdf
This annual survey from EdChoice, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3272550
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

Competition: For the Children
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/competition-for-the-children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa830.pdf
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

 

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Lennie Jarratt, Heartland’s project manager for the Center for Transforming Education, at ljarratt@heartland.org or 312/377-4000.

Author
Tim Benson joined The Heartland Institute in September 2015 as a policy analyst in the Government Relations Department.
TBenson@heartland.org @BenceAthwart