Customized solutions demonstrated by education savings accounts in Arizona were touted in a panel discussion today at The Heritage Foundation to mark National School Choice Week.

Matthew Ladner, senior adviser in policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, stressed the need for a “public school system that is more effective … and more cost effective.” In a world increasingly driven by technology, he said, “the reality is that it’s normal in life for things to get better and cheaper all the time.”

In 2011, Arizona established the nation’s first education savings accounts (ESAs) for children with special needs, then expanded them to include children from active-duty military families, in foster care or from low-income families in schools rated “D” or “F.”

Education savings accounts allow for a high level of customization that supporters say brings K-12 education into the 21st century. This kind of change “has to happen at the state and local level,” said Lindsey M. Burke, Heritage’s Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy.

Here’s how the program works: Parents receive ESA funds loaded onto a debit card, and can use them to pay for a long list of education services and providers including private school tuition, tutoring, special education, homeschooling resources, textbooks, and even “virtual” education.

Eligible families essentially choose to opt out of public education and receive funds that the state normally would have been spent on their child. Parents can choose to save a portion of the funds each quarter, since they roll over. The idea is to put parents in a much more proactive position in saving for college.

“The fact that you can save for future college expenses means that parents are the ones that are economizing,” Ladner said.

The panel also included Tim Keller, executive director of Arizona chapter of the Institute for Justice, and Jason Bedrick, an education policy analyst at Cato Institute.

“Parents are in a much better position to decide what’s best for their kids,” said Bedrick, who described the data gathered in a “school satisfaction” survey taken to explore the results of ESAs.

“To sum up,” he said, “there’s a variety of uses, 100 percent satisfaction, low-income families benefited the most and it’s easy to apply and use these programs.”

This story was produced by The Foundry’s news team. Nothing here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundation.