New Report Examines Three Innovative Parent Tools to Optimize the Potential of Education Savings Accounts

Education savings accounts have the potential to rewire the entire education system around new decision-makers: parents. In an ESA program, all or a large portion of the money the state spends on the education of a child can be deposited, upon parent request, in a restricted-use bank account and used to put together a customized educational package of the family’s choice. Five states – Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee – already have ESA programs on the books, and more than a dozen states all over the country introduced ESA bills just this past legislative session, from Oregon to Oklahoma and Minnesota to Missouri.

Unlike a voucher, which can only be spent in a lump sum at a participating private school, an ESA can be used at any combination of educational providers the parent thinks best for his or her child, including at-home tutors, online learning, charter schools, private schools, educational therapy, and curricula. ESAs open the door to a truly individualized, 21st-century education system for American children.

A new ALEC state factor examines what design elements are crucial for ESAs to be as transformational as they have the potential to be, and looks to other similar markets like higher education and home schooling to predict how parents will sort through and evaluate education providers. Three tools – peer review, branding, and expert consulting – will help parents decide which providers align with their educational visions.

In 2016, everything gets reviewed online, via Yelp, Angie’s List and others; even particular McDonald’s locations get reviewed. It should come as no surprise, then, to find that parents are already using the Internet to share consumer reviews about education providers with one another. In Arizona, where the ESA program has been in operation the longest, parents have created a message board to swap experiences and help guide each other’s choices.

Although opponents will not trust parents to be savvy consumers, branding will likely be among the most crucial tools in parents’ arsenal when looking for educational experiences that align with their expectations and values. There are hundreds of recognizable brands in the education space already: Catholic schools, Montessori preschools, KIPP charter schools, Hillsdale College and many others. With thousands of schools on the market already and the new education entrepreneurs ESA parents’ newfound purchasing power is likely to attract, branding will be key in helping parents narrow the field into a more manageable set of options to be more thoroughly investigated.

A final potential tool discussed in the state factor is a new, 21st-century update to the traditional high school guidance counselor: expert consulting. While peer review is likely to yield useful information about the experience of using a provider, expert review or consulting will be helpful in providing information about how options align with more objective measures of quality, such as PISA or college preparatory expectations. Expert advice may come in the form of published rankings, like the U.S. World & News Report for universities, or in the more personal format of an education consultant, whose expertise can be hired with a small fraction of a parent’s ESA funds to help connect him with the education providers who best implement the education he wants for his child.

America are on the cusp of a real education revolution, although it is not quite here yet. ESA programs must be large enough and broad enough to serve as more than a lifeline out of failing public schools and to attract large numbers of established and new education entrepreneurs to come compete for parents’ dollars. But if lawmakers and regulators can get the policy right, ESAs can transform not only the lives of the families enrolled in them, but the education system as a whole, ensuring that every child has an education tailored to exactly his or her needs, strengths and dreams.

In Depth: Education

An excellent education has long been recognized as key to the American Dream. Unfortunately, the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system is failing our students, leaving them unprepared for college, careers, or life. Similarly, our higher education system is leaving students with higher debt burdens and fewer career guarantees…

+ Education In Depth