Our nation seems at last to have reached a consensus that our public school system is a mess, and that we cannot continue to be the most prosperous country on earth if we don’t address this challenge.
More choices for students are essential for improving education for every child. Consider the story of Lee Zwagerman from Phoenix, whose future could have been defined only by the emergence of Asperger syndrome when he was a young child. Lee’s mild autism prevented him from adapting as the public schools he attended got bigger and some of his classmates treated him badly. Feeling trapped and isolated, Lee retreated into himself.
Still, Lee’s parents never would have enrolled him in a specialized education program at a private school on their own. They couldn’t afford it. School vouchers in Arizona came just in time for Lee to start high school at a smaller, private campus.
Four years later, Lee’s grades are good, he has performed in the high school choir, and he plans to attend college after graduation this spring.
However, in 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the education voucher program that helped Lee to thrive. His mom, Myra Zwagerman, worries about all of the other Arizona children who no longer have access to the best available education, regardless of the setting.
|Education accounts sidestep Supreme Court rules against school vouchers. (AP)
“Not every public school is for every child, or even for two children from the same family or the same value system,” she said. “I don’t think Lee would be interested in college now if he had stayed in public school.”
Arizona and a number of other states face what appears to be an immovable barrier to widespread use of school vouchers — outdated state constitutional amendments that forbid direct assistance to private or religious schools. The Goldwater Institute in Phoenix has examined this issued closely and developed an even better alternative, called education savings accounts, that address these constitutional concerns while building on the success of such programs as Florida’s McKay Scholarships and the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarships.
With an education savings account, if a student leaves his traditional public school, a portion of the state funding for that student goes into a dedicated account. The student’s family can use an education savings account for any educational purpose — private school tuition, distance learning, tutoring, dual enrollment in a community college, or savings for college after high school.
Education savings accounts are not the first type of special-purpose account established by law. Health savings accounts are widely used to pay medical costs. And many families use a Coverdell account to save for college. Education savings accounts differ in that they are used for grade school and high school expenses.
Education savings accounts have the potential to fundamentally transform the K-12 school system into a way of delivering an education that’s tailored to the needs and abilities of every child. Education savings accounts reorient the government’s role from directly providing educational services to funding services wherever the family deems best.
Parents and families are firmly in charge, recognizing that every child is unique. Some students learn best in a traditional setting, others in front of a computer, while still others like Lee Zwagerman have special needs. Traditional school systems struggle to provide personalized services to all of their students. Education savings accounts are highly flexible and personal.
Families with education savings accounts also can harness the breathtaking advances in education technology. In particular, distance learning allows students to interact with the very best teachers and to work at an individual pace.
While many states wrestle with multibillion dollar budget deficits, education savings accounts also offer a way to save money. The state’s contribution would be only a portion of the funds it would otherwise pay for educational services, reducing the burden on taxpayers. Because many services would be privately provided, public school salaries and benefits can be reduced, along with administrative overhead.
Finally, education savings accounts avoid the constitutional problems that school vouchers face. These accounts provide funds to families, who can use them for a broad array of publicly and privately provided educational services.
The state of Arizona has committed to the use of education savings accounts starting this fall. Florida, Ohio, and Montana are considering adoption this year as well.
Our nation can no longer afford to have second-rate public schools. Nor can we simply tinker at the edges. We need student-centered reform. Education savings accounts will help to build an education system to meet the competitive realities of the modern age, and to better serve all children.
Clint Bolick argued the first case before the U.S. Supreme Court that recognized school vouchers as valid under the U.S. Constitution. He is litigation director of the Goldwater Institute.
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