Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the September issue of Townhall Magazine.
In 1832, during his first public address, Abraham Lincoln laid out what he believed to be the key to social and economic advancement: a quality education.
“Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we, as a people, can be engaged in,” he observed. “That every man may receive at least a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance.”
Then as now, Lincoln, of course, was right.
And yet for too many schoolchildren, a quality education still remains out of reach. The 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress—otherwise known as the so-called “Nation’s Report Card”—found that 32 percent of fourth graders and 22 percent of eighth graders tested “below basic” reading levels. Put another way, nearly one-fourth of students entering high school cannot read at grade level, and experience shows they probably never will.
So much for reading the histories of America and other countries so that our kids can “appreciate the value of our free institutions.”
Worse, our nation’s schools are falling behind international competitors. The Program for International Student Assessment tests 15 and 16-year-olds in 64 countries across the globe in math, science, and reading every year. In 2012, the most recent year available, the United States finished 26th, 20th, and 17th in math, science, and reading, respectively, among the 34 member states that comprise the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Alarmingly, that test was by no means an outlier. For example, only 56 percent of undergraduates in the United States currently earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a 2012 Harvard Graduate School of Education study. That means more than 40 percent of U.S. students who begin college either do not finish in six years or do not finish at all. These students are left with both the crushing debt of a college education, and no degree to help them pay it off.
Democrats often call for more money to be spent on education, as additional funding seems to be the Left’s solution to everything. But the U.S. government already allocates more money to educate its citizens than any other developed country, more than $11,000 and $12,000 a year on each elementary and high school student.
So what can conservatives offer as an alternative?
CHAMPIONING SCHOOL CHOICE
School vouchers, which usually come in the form of government-funded scholarships, are an exciting opportunity available to families with children trapped in failing school districts, and are of- ten provided to low-income families, allowing parents to privately educate their children.
Part of the reason why so many children, especially from inner cities and rural areas, cannot escape schools that are failing them, is because their families simply cannot afford to send them anywhere else. Student vouchers, therefore, open doors of opportunity that otherwise would not exist.
Certainly, any program that gives families more choice and freedom in how they educate their children is a positive step forward. But while effective, vouchers are often limited in both scope and practicality. For many voucher programs, only government-sanctioned private schools are allowed to accept a school voucher. That limits access and choice.
At the same time, families with special-needs children, or families who simply want to educate their children holistically or in the home, will find school vouchers unhelpful. So while they can be a helpful tool for some, school vouchers are not the solution for everyone.
There is, however, perhaps a more comprehensive option, one that is gaining momentum in education reform circles across the country: education savings accounts.
THE ESA ADVANTAGE
“Parents can choose from a variety of different educational services and options with an education savings account,” the Goldwater Institute’s education director, Jonathan Butcher, told Townhall. “Vouchers have one purpose, and helping families send their children to private schools [have] been very important in the areas in which vouchers are in place.”
However, since the ways in which families are accessing education are changing so quickly, Butcher explained, the savings accounts give families tremendous flexibility and access that vouchers do not.
The way ESAs are intended to work is simple: the state deposits money into a private bank account, which furnishes families with the financial capital to educate their children in ways that will improve educational outcomes. And parents are getting excited about them.
“Education savings accounts are an innovative part of the future of learning,” Butcher said. “Some children learn best at the kitchen table with their parents, others working online on their own, and others in a classroom—and education savings accounts help families meet the unique needs of their children, no matter their skill level or where they decide the best place and way for their children to learn.”
This is why families are increasingly turning to ESAs every single year.
ARIZONA LEADS THE WAY
The Goldwater Institute, a liberty-minded think tank in Phoenix, Arizona, helped design this relatively new program, known formally as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. And, in fact, the organization was instrumental in getting the first ESA law passed in the United States.
“The Goldwater Institute designed education savings accounts in 2005,” Butcher said. “And we were active in crafting the nation’s first law in Arizona, defending the accounts and ultimately winning the lawsuit on the accounts’ constitutionality here, and expanding eligibility.”
The law was first adopted in April 2011, but during the first year it was offered, only families with special needs children could apply. Since 2012, however, ESAs have been dramatically broadened to include hundreds of thousands of school children.
According to the Center for Arizona Policy, children who meet certain criteria—i.e., those attending schools with ‘D’ or ‘F’ rankings, with special needs, living in foster homes, or who have parents serving in the military, among other prerequisites—are all eligible to apply. This amounts to roughly 200,000 students in Arizona, according to the Center for Education Reform.
And the program is fiscally solvent. Instead of paying for students to attend public schools, the state government will cover 90 percent of the costs Arizona would otherwise have been compelled to pay to educate them traditionally. Moreover, money that isn’t spent during a given academic year need not be returned to the state. Par- ents can save unspent money for their children’s college fund, or spend it on other education-related expenses the next semester.
This is a laudable goal for a program that has only existed for a few years, and suggests more states might be open to experimenting with it in the future.
Indeed, that already seems to be the case. “Arizona and Florida have passed education savings accounts into law. Arizona’s program is entering its fourth year, while Florida’s program just became law in June,” Butcher said. “Lawmakers in Mississippi, Oregon, Oklahoma, Iowa, Montana, Utah, Missouri, to name a few, have introduced legislation that would give families in their state the ability to use education savings accounts.”
HOME SCHOOLING SUCCESSES
Lynn McMurray and her husband, Tim, hail from Phoenix, Arizona, and have three adopted children who have benefited measurably from ESAs: Alicia, 15, Uriah, 11, and Valerie, 11. The McMurrays first became interested in ESAs when Alicia was preparing to attend the local public high school; but the school just didn’t seem like the right fit.
“When I went to the high school and realized that the emotionally disabled and cognitively delayed would be in the same classroom, I said, ‘I don’t know about this,’” she told Townhall. “And that’s nothing against the school; they just don’t have one-on-one care for every child. I understand that, there’s no money for that, and I get that.”
But of her daughter, she said, “her needs weren’t being met.”
Since leaving the public school system, however, Alicia has made significant progress.
“Since she’s been home-schooled ... she has soared,” McMurray said. “People have met her and said, ‘what have you done and why is the light bulb on?’”
“I tell them ‘I didn’t do anything,’” she continued. “I’m just keeping her at home and between myself, the tutors, and the occupation therapist, [she’s made real progress].”
Uriah is proudly described by his mother as “brilliant.” But because of his congenital shyness, he was beginning to fall behind. He was afraid to ask questions in class, and therefore was failing multiple subjects, even though his mother knew he understood the course material he was studying.
Arizona’s ESA program changed his life.
“I’m in my office one day and I hear him say to his sister, Valerie, ‘We haven’t done this yet, let’s go work on our science,’” she beamed. “He wanted to work on it. Before ESAs, he had the Monday and Friday flu every week. He was getting depressed, he was beating himself up, his self-esteem was extremely low.”
Not anymore, she said. Now he enjoys learning, and even reading books in his free time, a remarkable turnaround in a remarkably short period of time.
The same can be said of her youngest daughter, Valerie, who is also benefiting from the program, despite the fact that she has cerebral palsy.
“There’s nothing wrong with [her] mind, it’s just that her leg doesn’t work very well,” McMurray said. “She’s extremely social but because she has a limp, people would often make fun of her.”
The flexibility offered by ESAs allow Lynn and her husband to educate their children at home, where they are more focused on their schoolwork, and do not risk being bullied or distracted by their classmates.
Nonetheless, despite her positive experience with the program, McMurray said choosing to participate in the ESA program is an important but difficult decision, and isn’t for everyone.
“It’s not fun and games,” she cautioned. “It’s not babysitting. You are the money manager for your child’s education. You don’t just get to sit and assume they’re going to learn it.”
She explained that in her own experience, she’s seen parents mismanage their children’s education funds, and even “take advantage” of the program’s generous subsidies. Critics of the program, for their part, would also argue that ESAs divert funds from the public education system, and therefore make it harder for teachers to teach effectively given ever-tightening school budgets. Nevertheless, McMurray loves the flexibility that ESAs provide her and her husband. And, overall, is quite satisfied with it.
“Applying was easy,” she said. “I love the credit cards. There are three different credit cards for three different kids. I can call and see what’s on it, what’s not. I love the fact that I don’t have to use it all in one semester.”
“I love the freedom,” she said.
And, of course, the results speak for themselves.
“They can learn more in one hour at home than they can in eight hours [at school],” she said.
THE ROAD AHEAD
No government program can fix all of our public education woes. And, in truth, many public school systems are doing just fine.
But more aggressive programs, such as the ESAs adopted in Arizona, at least give students and parents, in the right circumstances, real opportunities to tailor their children’s educations in ways that work best for them.
For decades, children with special-needs or distinct learning patterns— that is, children like Alicia, Uriah, and Valerie—have been consigned to schools that are not a good fit for them, even if these settings are workable for traditional students. ESAs expand opportunity, and have shown the potential to improve the educational outcomes of those who participate in, and take advantage of, such programs.
Consider each of the following questions:
How many parents across the country would like to home-school their children, but don’t have the money to buy textbooks and supplies?
How many parents would like to enroll their sons or daughters in online classes, but can’t pull together the necessary resources?
How many parents would like to educate their children by mixing and matching both traditional classes with private tutoring options, but feel hamstrung by burdensome regulations and red tape?
ESAs provide an outlet for parents to do all this and more.
ESAs will not work for every parent, nor is this the intent. But as part of the broader education reform movement, they provide important benefits, and should therefore be available to any well-intentioned parent who is willing to commit to their proper use. •