Will Education Savings Accounts bolster course choice policy goals?

Keeping Pace has tracked course choice programs and policies in our 2014 print report and several blog posts (for example here and here.) Among our findings has been that course choice programs and policies (in which students can take a single online course and have public funding go to the course provider; also called course access by some advocates) have not yet grown at rapid rates. In some cases, such as in Louisiana, the switch from the state funding a state virtual school to course choice has resulted in a clear reduction in the number of students taking online courses. In other cases such as Texas, the promise of increased student access has not materialized because of policy and/or organizational constraints. With the sessions for most state legislatures done or winding down for 2015, it seems clear that there has not been a significant expansion of course choice programs for the 2015-16 school year and beyond. Recently Nevada passed a law that could pave a different path to course choice: education savings accounts (ESAs) that allow students to use funds for online courses. From the Christian Science Monitor:

“A groundbreaking law in Nevada allows virtually all parents of K-12 students to opt out of public school but use their children’s state education dollars for a customized education, including private or religious schooling, online classes, textbooks, and dual-enrollment college credits. (emphasis added)

The money goes into an education savings account (ESA), and dollars not spent by the parent in a given year roll over for future spending – until the student finishes high school or opts back into public school… Nevada is not the first state with ESAs, but it is the first to offer them not just to select groups of students. Nevada is giving them to all who have been enrolled in public school for at least 100 days – about 453,000 children, or 93 percent of school-age students in the state.

The way in which the law allows for the funds to be used for private and religious schools has received the most attention, and is the law’s most controversial element. It will undoubtedly be compared to school voucher laws, but as Rick Hess explains in Education Week, Nevada’s bill has the potential to be much stronger than voucher laws, in large part because it allows for unbundling of education services in ways that most voucher laws do not. It is precisely this unbundling that could lead to students choosing online courses.

It’s not entirely clear how the law will play out for individual courses and providers (for more information see this detailed summary). Arizona has a fairly broad ESA law, but only about 1% of eligible students are taking part in that state’s version of ESAs—so it’s entirely possible that the law will not lead to a significant increase in the number of students taking online courses in Nevada. Still, with course choice programs apparently stalling in other states, it’s worth watching to see if ESAs may be another path taken by students in Nevada, and by course choice advocates in other states.