No, Education Savings Accounts are not the same as vouchers

The Education Savings Account language included in Senate File 960 has been inaccurately referred to by critics as “vouchers.” There are differences between the two.

Despite key distinctions between school choice programs, opponents typically use the same politically loaded language — vouchers — to describe them.

Maybe it’s convenient for their argument, or maybe they simply don’t understand the differences.

The differences

A traditional voucher program allows parents to use the state education dollars allocated for their child toward tuition at a private school of their choosing, including religious schools. A state-approved organization writes out a check, which a parent endorses and then gives to the private school of choice, or the check is issued directly to a school under the parents’ names. Typically, voucher programs also start out targeting certain groups of students in need of new learning opportunities, such as those from low-income families or students with disabilities.

An Education Savings Account (ESA) program allows parents to use the state education dollars allocated for their child toward a variety of different state-approved education-related expenses, such as tutoring or supplemental curriculum, mental health treatment, special education services and therapy, or tuition at a private school. This gives parents flexibility and control to access learning services that work best for their children. Parents access their child’s share of state education assistance through a restricted, government-authorized savings account often in the form of a debit card. (Like vouchers, ESAs also typically base eligibility on family income level or student disability status.)

Regarding the ESA provision in the Senate education bill, eligible families could use an ESA to pay for tuition and fees at private schools, out-o-district public schools, or postsecondary educational institutions, textbooks and other curricular materials, tutoring, or online programs, educational services and therapy for students with special needs, or assessment tests and entrance exams, to name a few.

Why these differences matter

Distinguishing between vouchers and ESAs matters because word choice can introduce misrepresentation of and opposition to a parent empowerment program that would otherwise be well-received.

Because ESAs are providing education dollars directly to families (who education funding comes from in the first place) versus a specific school or institution, ESAs pass the constitutionality test.

ESAs have also been advanced and passed in multiple states with bipartisan support.

An overwhelming number of empirical studies confirm that educational choice programs (including ESAs) do not have a negative fiscal impact on public schools and taxpayers. They do not “drain” public schools or “defund” them. Only state dollars fund ESAs, federal and local funds stay behind in a student’s home district even though the student is no longer there.

Studies also show that educational choice programs not only improve the academic outcomes of those who participate in them but also the outcomes of the students remaining in public schools.

ESAs are popular. According to a March 2021 poll conducted by Morning Consult, 69 percent of Minnesotans and 75 percent of parents nationwide support ESAs.

Traditional vouchers provide public dollars to private schools only; ESAs are more flexible and have multiple uses, meaning parents can choose not to use the funds for tuition at all.