We have more educational choices than ever. Is that a good thing?

Mar 20, 2024 6:14:49 PM


Education savings accounts are having a moment in state legislatures around the country. Advocates have encouraged their popularity, promising that ESAs will introduce greater flexibility and choice for families with little of either.

Unlike a traditional voucher, families can use ESAs to procure supplies, activities, and specialized help like tutoring or speech therapy. Many proponents of ESAs argue that this flexibility will unlock educational improvement by enabling families to optimize educational experiences based on their children’s unique needs — thereby affording lower-income families the same opportunities that affluent families have long used their resources to finance.

This logic holds intuitive appeal. We understand, for example, that addressing food insecurity with a bag of groceries (“a school”) is less desirable than allowing consumers to select individual food items (“learning experiences") that meet their needs and preferences at a retailer (“provider of learning”) of their choice. Households clearly benefit from more choice and customization when it comes to how the government subsidizes food.

However, the food subsidy analogy misses something important: Assembling a coherent set of educational experiences is different from grocery shopping–it requires more time and resources, and the inevitable mistakes carry greater liabilities.

As a mother of four children, I am deeply familiar with these hidden costs of “choice”: the hours spent researching summer camp options, the angst over whether the school my child attends is the best fit, and the all-consuming sadness that comes with uprooting a child from a school they love but that isn’t preparing them academically.

I’m also intimately familiar with my mistakes: questions I didn’t ask, assumptions I shouldn’t have made, and opportunities that I should have taken advantage of when I had the chance.

Economist George Loewstein captured these feelings: “When people are forced to make decisions for which they lack the requisite expertise, the consequences are likely to be lost time, bad choices, anxiety and self-recrimination.”

Unlike grocery shopping, shopping for learning experiences creates real dilemmas for families, even those neglected by traditional public schools, for which “better” is a low bar for success. For one, we don’t have our sense of taste to guide us; we just guess what a child may need at any given time. For another, most families’ goals for their children’s schooling are multifaceted — optimizing one dimension may leave another unfulfilled. Because it’s impossible to determine the most valuable impacts of education until much later in children’s lives, most parents, myself included, are operating in the dark about which educational experiences will yield the highest rewards.

Complicating matters further, families lack reliable data to inform their understanding of their child’s learning needs and assess whether any given provider is well-positioned to serve them adequately. Instead, we are left to sleuth around the internet or reach deep into our social networks, neither of which may be reliable, to inform our choices. All of this, of course, takes time and mental labor, largely borne by women.

Addressing the challenges families experience navigating educational opportunities, especially the more pluralistic experiences promised by ESA programs, is possible. Navigators are education consultants who can help families identify learning options to meet their students' needs. They are essential to reaping the benefits of more flexibility and choice. Instead of sleuthing around the internet, families could connect with a navigator to identify high-quality learning opportunities in their communities. It would also increase the likelihood that families explore educational options above and beyond traditional private schools. 

Outschool.org launched a choice navigator program as part of its outreach to underserved families after discovering that simply providing scholarships wasn’t enough, thanks to the “decision fatigue” that accompanies wading through the many available options. However, scaling such programs using public dollars will mean figuring out how to provide high-quality guidance at a cost that doesn’t break the bank.

Alongside efforts to improve support for families looking for options, policymakers could also act to improve families’ access to assessments that can provide information about their child’s learning needs. States could make available free norm-referenced assessments so families can assess student learning and make course corrections before it’s too late, as well as screening tools for common learning disabilities like dyslexia.

Arming families with information about their child’s learning needs can only help them better optimize where they invest their ESA dollars, and help them achieve the aspirations they have for their children.

Choice isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The question before policymakers is not whether parents should have the opportunity to choose but what investments are needed to ensure all families can better leverage choice to meet their children’s needs.

Ashley Jochim

Ashley Jochim is a principal at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, where her research focuses on identifying opportunities and obstacles to addressing systemic challenges in K-12 schools. A political scientist by training, Ashley is an expert on education governance and the politics of education policy.

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