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By expanding school choice and offering education savings account programs, states can increase access to high-quality education while strengthening civil society in the process.

When I was in eighth grade, my family moved from a small town with a historic main street to a community dotted with new residential developments. This new neighborhood offered more amenities but lacked the connectedness that made our hometown feel comfortable.

I realize now that it was not our previous town’s cozy size or its main street that provided its warmth. Rather, it was the “civil society” that matured there over more than a century—the places of worship where neighbors gathered, the Boy Scout troop I joined, the nonprofits that planted flowers each spring, and the town newspaper that was still printed on a creaky old press.  

During a time when our nation’s political divisions seem unlikely to heal quickly, strengthening local civil society can unite and inspire us to be better neighbors and citizens. Vibrant communities lead to friendships, productivity, and a sense of belonging. And the path to stronger hometowns can be forged, in part, by an unlikely impetus: school choice.

During the past three years, 25 states expanded K–12 school choice, and the definition of choice expanded along with it. More than a dozen states now offer programs called education savings accounts (ESAs). These programs allow families to use a portion of the state education funding allocated to their children to pay for private or nontraditional education. For example, while many families use ESA funds to pay for private school tuition, other moms and dads opt to “mix and match” their children’s education by selecting in-person and online courses from different providers.

As the number of mix-and-match learners grows, ESA programs offer the ideal vehicle for helping not only customize education but also localize it in ways that benefit students and the communities they call home. Imagine if every local chamber of commerce or business league offered students courses on starting their own business, if credit unions and banks worked together to develop financial management classes, and if conservation groups taught students about the environment.

ESAs provide incentives for these possibilities by allowing all education providers to charge modest per-student fees for courses and classes or to work together to create small schools that meet the needs of local families. The result is that students learn from local experts, and community organizations deepen their impact while earning funding that they reinvest in their charitable endeavors.

Local public, charter, magnet, and private schools can harness the power of ESA programs by allowing ESA students to take fee-based classes and courses, pursue part-time or dual enrollment, or participate in activities. Schools can even leverage their most effective courses by offering them online to ESA students statewide.

This all-in approach to education––involving families, community organizations, businesses, and existing schools––can benefit every community. For families in rural areas and small towns, it can open new doors to educational opportunity where few existed before.

Making this vision an even broader reality requires that more states act boldly, enacting ESA programs that are easy for parents to access and that encourage community-based providers to get involved. States with existing programs must hold program administrators accountable for the quality of the customer service they provide to families and educators and lift caps on the number of students who can access program funds.

Our nation has long struggled with the tension between embracing innovation and preserving what we love about our small towns. School choice proves that we can choose both, offering each family the opportunity to customize their children’s learning while bolstering the nonprofits, businesses, and institutions that are the heartbeat of our communities’ civil societies. Our framers coined a phrase for this synergy: the pursuit of happiness. Now, it’s up to states to allow that American pursuit to flourish––and we’ll all be the better for it. 

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