Friday, December 30, 2016

TX: Education Savings Accounts & Vouchers 2.0

Yesterday the Dallas News gave Mack Morris "Special Contributor" some space to plug Education Savings Accounts. ESAs are often called another way to do vouchers, but they are actually worse. Still, folks can be excused for misunderstanding-- the Dallas News includes headline art of a cap-and-gowned woman holding a giant $100 bill, suggesting that even the Dallas News has confused vouchery ESAs with the other Education Savings Account meant as an instrument for collecting money for college.

Morris is actually the Texas deputy Director for Americans For Prosperity, one of the Koch brothers astroturf groups that has crusaded against Obama, Democrats, and government (you know-- that big organization that takes your money and gives it to Those People when you know darn well that if God wanted them to have money they wouldn't be poor). The AFP helped launch the Tea Party and was the single biggest spender on political advertising in 2014.

Morris's pitch is the one currently preferred by privatizers of public education-- families must have choices so that they can escape zip codes where their children are "trapped" in failing schools. As always, this does not lead us to consider what the state's role is in the "failure" of those schools, or what the state could do to help. Instead, Morris wants you to know that there are these cool ESAs happening in other states like Florida and Nevada. Morris spends a whole paragraph talking about the failings of Texas education-- low test scores, high drop-out rate-- as if these things make a case for vouchers and not for a case that Texas should maybe fund and support its school system.

As proof that vouchery goodness would help, he cites University of Arkansas Distinguished Professor of Education Policy Patrick Wolf-- oops! Somehow Morris omitted Wolf's full title "Distinguished Professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform." So perhaps not an objective academic here (and if you want to be slightly more depressed, look at how much time Wolf has spent working in the USED). He's a go-to guy for pro-voucher press.

He estimates that if Texas adopted an education savings account program that went into effect in the fall of 2017, a total of 11,809 additional students would graduate by 2022 — and that number would likely increase over time.

Man-- that "11,809" is so awesomely specific that you just know it's a product of True Science and not just a number he pulled out of his butt. Personally, I estimate that 643,311 students will have more trouble completing school because of the funding their school will lose through ESAs. See? I can estimate my way to science, too!

But Morris is ahead of me. ESAs would totally boost performance in the schools that students quit, because reasons. He also claims that there are twenty-nine studies that show traditional schools improve because of choice programs. He does not link to, name, or cite any of these studies. There are twenty-four national studies that show that Morris is making shit up.

"But hey," you ask. "What are Education Savings Account and how are they both the same and different from vouchers? You said they were worse. What's up with that, anyway?"

In a voucher system, families are given a... well, voucher, like a coupon good for (usually) around $7-10 at any state-approved school. But in an ESA, families are given a small stack of money and told, go spend this on education or, you know, whatever. You could go to a public school, or hire a tutor, or take educational field trips, or even just bank a bunch of it to help pay for college. Hell, buy a Playstation and play "educational" games all day.

ESAs typically take about 90% of the cost-per-pupil of the school district. In Texas that amounts to about $7,800 per student (special needs students usually get more money, but since Texas has made the bulk of its special needs students mysteriously disappear, that may present a special Texas challenge).

$7,800 is not a heck of a lot of money to send your kid to a private school. However, here's a thing we know about how voucher systems tend to work-- a bigger-than-half percentage of voucher students were never in public schools in the first place. With a voucher system, the school gets money from the state and depending on how much they were scraping to pay tuition, families get to keep money for other stuff. With ESAs, families get a stack of money which they can then just spend on whatever. It's like a special taxpayer-paid bonus for sending your kid to private school.

So private schools (particularly religious ones) benefit. Families that could already afford to send their kids to private schools benefit hugely. People who wanted to wash their hands of any obligation to make sure that non-wealthy non-white kids got a decent education-- well, they'd be able to say, "Look, we gave you your ESA money. If you still got a crappy education, that's not our problem. We've done our part. The rest is on you." It also creates a whole new ethical dilemma for the poor-- you don't have money for food, but you have your ESA money, so do you choose half-day school so you can put some food on the table? ESAs represent a whole new market for bottom-of-the-barrel education providers.

ESAs also dovetail nicely with next generation choice on steroids, a future envisioned by some in which families get their child's education from a variety of specialized vendors. Team that up with "personalized" on-line education, and you can imagine ESAs as your on-line credit. For just ten tokens you can unlock the next level of your Calculus I training!

That's because what ESAs do best is bust up the binding on education funding. The first problem for privatizers was to disrupt the pipeline than ran straight from taxpayers to public schools, to break that pipeline open so that all that sweet sweet tax money could go to other places. The second problem is to break the bundling-- all that money tends to travel in large chunks, so that if you want to grab some of it, you need an enterprise large enough to attract one of the big bundles, like a national testing company or an entire school. But if privatizers could break those bundles of cash up, they could nickle and dime themselves into decent revenue streams.

That's what ESAs promise-- instead of voucher customers who have to spend all their money on just one thing, ESAs promise customers who can spend any amount of money on pretty much product. ESAs also promise to absolve the state of its obligation to actually educate its children, which could liberate wealthy Texans from having to suffer a tax bite to help Those People.

It's a big win for everyone except, of course, students and poor families.

Texas has several other details to work out, and a lot of people to sell on this idea for gutting public education. Let's hope that Texans get to hear from people other than Mack Morris, or else a whole generation will end up paying a huge price for this foolishness.


  1. Right on target at the end about ESA's reducing the public obligation to educate children. The privatization forces are not all on the same page. Some want the government to fund education, but the money would go to corporations instead of public schools. But others want to privatize in order to ultimately eliminate public funding of education.

  2. This panel discussion is key to understanding how the morphing of vouchers into ESAs is incredibly dangerous. The panel is part of Jeb Bush's Excellence in Education conference from earlier in December. They talk about moving ESAs into state departments of treasury, because they are inherently banking programs, NOT education programs. Arizona already has debit card ESAs that parents can use to "buy" educational opportunities. It is very telling that the guy from the NV treasurer's office talks about discontinuing the term "school choice" in favor of "educational choice." The end goal is to remove education from schools entirely and place them in virtual environments.

  3. Texas ESA pushers also plan to have a debit card system:

  4. As a home educator with one child in private school, I am absolutely opposed to ESA's, vouchers or ANYTHING that gives the state or feds a right to tell me how to direct my kids education and that's exactly what will happen because you know as well as I do that the government doesn't give money away without strings....
    So although I'm with you on the fact that this is bad news for education (freedom), I really dislike your asinine liberal spin on the issue.
    "ESAs also promise to absolve the state of its obligation to actually educate its children, which could liberate wealthy Texans from having to suffer a tax bite to help Those People"

    You really think ESA's has a blooming thing to do with "wealthy people" (and we all know you mean white people)wanting a tax break??? Please tell me where the ESA money will come from if anyone gets a tax break? Oh and while you're at it why don't you explain just exactly how it is you think wealthy white people are to blame for poor people's problems?
    BTW....I'm white and low income. Our family pulls in a whopping 50 grand a year on one income and other than the scholarship my 9th grade son earned to be able to attend his private school, we pay every single last penny it cost to educate our kids ourselves...ON TOP of the taxes we pay towards public education. No one is whining here and no one wants a dime from anyone to help with the cost. If people want a better education they need to make the personal sacrifices to make it happen. It's doable, we did it back when we lived on less than $38,000 a year with 5 kids to feed. People can and will help themselves if they care enough to. Government needs to get the hell out of our business!!!

    1. According to Wikipedia, $50,000 a year is the average income for a family of five in the U.S. Just saying.

    2. Whoops, five kids equals family of seven, average income $42,500. Average family income in general $53,600. Then of course five dependents gives a nice reduction in federal income taxes. But many people have much lower incomes. I would suggest you read #8 on the list of things to do in 2017 in Peter's post above. Link: