Beienburg: Education savings accounts turn 10 and states are celebrating


What’s the best way to celebrate a big school choice birthday? Give more educational opportunities to more students.

And some states are marking one milestone by doing just that. Nearly 10 years ago to the day, the Arizona Legislature passed the nation’s first education savings account program.

ESAs allow families to receive a portion of the dollars being used on their children’s education and instead use that money to pay for tuition, tutors and teaching tools that best meet their child’s needs. Pioneered by the Goldwater Institute, where I work, and known officially in Arizona as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, this program has expanded from helping just 144 kids at its inception to now serving some 10,000 Arizona students.

Throughout that time, Goldwater has been leading efforts to boost educational freedom, working with our peers across the country to make similar reforms in their own states. Now, eight states have followed Goldwater’s lead and adopted their own ESA program.

Over the past few months, legislators across the country have responded to the needs of their families — and to the actions of teachers’ unions and politicians who have shut down schooling and displaced student learning because of COVID-19. Indeed, as the Educational Freedom Institute’s Active Legislation Map makes clear, building frustration over closed schools and pent-up demand for educational choice have let loose a whirlwind of potential new student opportunities across the nation, with more than half of states pursuing new legislation to allow families greater say over the education of their kids.

In Goldwater’s home state of Arizona, for example, state lawmakers are working to extend ESA eligibility in the Grand Canyon State to low-income students and children of military families, which would expand Arizona’s program to thousands more students than are currently eligible.

Perhaps even more notably, however, several states have already successfully passed major new legislation this session accomplishing this goal — including via ESA-type programs of their own. Passed over the veto of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, for instance, new Kentucky Education Opportunity Accounts will provide tax-credit funded scholarships allowing families to pay for tutoring, textbooks, private school tuition and more.

And in West Virginia, newly passed legislation will provide families with virtually universal access to ESAs. Officially dubbed “Hope Scholarships,” this new funding opportunity for families will provide, as noted by West Virginia’s Cardinal Institute, “the nation’s most inclusive education savings account program — accessible to over 90% of the state’s students.”

These accomplishments are even more remarkable in light of recent history and the (until now) successful stifling of school choice in such states, where even charter schools are virtually nonexistent. Indeed, as the epicenter of union-backed protests via the RedforEd movement just a handful of years ago, West Virginia could not have staged a more dramatic show of support for parents and students than it has now.

Of course, in an ideal world, these accomplishments would earn at least the same level of praise that media outlets have showered upon West Virginia’s teacher strikes over the past several years.

A Washington Post correspondent declared in 2019, for instance: “The Red For Ed — or #RedForEd — movement started when West Virginia teachers who were sick and tired of working for low pay and in resource-starved schools walked out of class…”

Perhaps now they’ll be able to offer an updated version: “Hope Scholarships started when West Virginia families who were sick and tired of waiting for educational opportunity decided their kids should never again be kept out of class.”

But regardless of the media narrative, lawmakers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and elsewhere deserve credit for listening to parents and prioritizing students.

May their peers in other states continue to do likewise: It’s clear from the spate of new bills under consideration and laws being passed by state legislatures that families are hungry for more learning options.

And as ESAs enter their second decade, it’s heartening to see that states are continuing to realize that their students deserve a wider range of educational opportunities to put them on the path to success.

Matt Beienburg is the director of education policy and the director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute.