Examination finds ‘significant concerns’ over Education Savings Accounts

From the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice

In recent years, efforts to expand school choice programs across the U.S. have grown rapidly. Since the introduction of the first school voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990, public funding of private and religious schools has gained traction and there are 30 states now offering vouchers or voucher-like programs.

School choice advocates have begun introducing a new form of private school choice funding: Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Parents who take their children out of public schools can use ESA programs to fund their children’s private or religious school education. In states that offer ESA programs, parents can also use the funds for education-related expenses, including: online courses, private tutoring, transportation, and much more.

A new policy brief published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) examines the emergence of ESA policies and makes recommendations for policy makers who are considering adopting or expanding these programs. The policy brief, The State of Education Savings Account Programs in the United States, found significant concerns with ESA programs and a stunning lack of research evidence to support ongoing calls for continued expansion.

Available research and evaluations of ESA policies remains severely lacking. This gap is critical in light of the fact that ESA programs are being expanded at a rapid pace. Since 2016, 13 states have introduced ESAs. New Hampshire is the latest state to adopt these policies.

Authors of the report urge policy makers to pause the adoption or expansion of ESA programs until more guidelines are in place that ensure accountability and transparency. NEPC produced the report with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Why You Should Care

Proponents of ESAs argue these programs provide parents with more choice, flexibility and freedom to design their child’s education, especially if they are dissatisfied with public school options. Against this backdrop, it is likely ESAs will continue to expand across the country.

That’s why it is critical for state and federal policy makers and education leaders to examine ESA policies and put accountability measures in place to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and transparently, and that every child has access to a quality education.


  • According to the authors of the brief (Jimenez-CastellanosMathis, & Welner), policy makers should be wary of the adoption or expansion of ESA policies.
    • ESA programs are a new type of private school funding that diverts much-needed funding away from public schools and redirect it to parents who enroll their children in private or religious schools and supplemental programs.
    • Parents receive taxpayer dollars that would have been used towards their child’s public school education, which then can be used at their discretion towards private or religious school tuition and fees, online courses, tutoring and other services.
    • Current ESA policies contain no requirements regarding curriculum or teacher qualifications.
  • Policy makers lack the evidence-based to support the adoption or expansion of ESA programs.
    • Existing research on other conventional school voucher programs point to a number of problems, including: lower student performance, less accountability, reduced access and increased segregation.
    • Authors of the policy brief found that ESAs appear to be an end run around state constitutional prohibitions against using public funds to support religious activities.
  • Considering the potential adverse effects and lack of evidence-based research on ESA programs, state policy makers need to take a step back on ESA programs, and ensure the implications of such programs are fully considered before enacting them into law.
    • State policy makers and education leaders in states with existing ESA programs or those considering adopting an ESA program should develop comprehensive evaluation systems that determine the impact of ESA programs on students, families, schools, districts and states.
    • Policy makers need to make sure guidelines are in place that ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and transparently, and that students inside and outside of such programs are receiving quality and equitable educational opportunities.

Find the brief on the Great Lakes Center website: