Tennessee Special Needs Kids Get Choices in Education

Tennessee just became the 28th state to enact a private school choice program, giving parents more options for their children’s education. Governor Bill Haslam signed the nation’s fourth Education Savings Account law on Monday.

Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi already allowed parents to have some control over the funding allocated for their kids’ education through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are a flexible way for parents to manage some of the money that otherwise would be used for their kids’ education in their zoned public school. ESAs allow parents to pay for different kinds of educational services that may be the best fit for their children, including tuition, online courses, tutoring, therapy, or other categories of expenses defined by law.

Now, Tennessee children with an Individualized Education Plan will be able to use state and local funds, plus special education funds to which they would be entitled, for the schools and services their parents judge will best meet their individual needs. This law empowers parents of children with autism and many other special needs to get the help they need to succeed in school.

Parents of children with special needs want less red tape and more options. ESAs empower families to find and pay for those options, providing winning solutions for children. Oregon children should be given this opportunity, too.

Coming This January: The Largest-Ever Rally for School Choice Nationwide

Millions of Americans nationwide will voice their support for educational opportunity during the fourth-annual National School Choice Week, which begins January 26, 2014. The Week will include an unprecedented 5,500 events across all 50 states, with a goal of increasing public awareness of the importance of empowering parents with the freedom to choose the best educational environments for their children.

National School Choice Week events will be independently planned and independently funded by schools, organizations, individuals, and coalitions. Events—which include rallies, roundtable discussions, school fairs, parent information sessions, movie screenings, and more—will focus on a variety of school choice issues important to families in local communities, including open enrollment policies in traditional public schools, public charter and magnet schools, private school choice programs, online learning, and homeschooling.

“During National School Choice Week, millions of Americans will hear the uplifting and transformational stories of students, parents, teachers, and school leaders who are benefiting from a variety of different school choice programs and policies across America,” said Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week. “Our hope is that by letting more people know about the successes of school choice where it exists, more parents will become aware of the educational opportunities available to their families.”

“During the Week, Americans from all backgrounds and ideologies will celebrate school choice where it exists and demand it where it does not,” Campanella said. “National School Choice Week will be the nation’s largest-ever series of education-related events, which is testament to the incredible levels of support that exist for educational opportunity in America.”

Cascade Policy Institute will host a National School Choice Week “Policy Picnic” on Wednesday, January 29, at noon. Cascade founder Steve Buckstein will discuss the Education Savings Account (ESA) bill being considered during Oregon’s 2014 legislative session and what Oregonians can do to promote greater educational opportunity in our state. Oregon’s 2014 Education Equity Emergency Act (“E3”) is modeled on Arizona’s highly successful ESA program. For details and to RSVP for this free event, visit cascadepolicy.org.

Students today have diverse talents, interests, and needs; and they learn in different ways. The landscape of educational options to meet those needs is far more expansive today than it was even a few years ago. Freedom in education is good for all children, not just for children who are “at risk” or “in failing schools.” Parents, not bureaucracies, should decide which learning environment is best for their children and be empowered to choose those schools. National School Choice Week provides a platform for all of us to demand greater educational opportunities for children, especially in areas which do not yet provide meaningful options to families.

For more information about National School Choice Week and to participate in events near you, visit schoolchoiceweek.com.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute and Director of the privately funded Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families.

The Future of School Choice in Oregon: Education Savings Accounts

School choice is widespread in America, including in Oregon—unless you are poor. Affluent families have choice because they can move to different neighborhoods or communities, send their children to private schools, or supplement schooling with tutors, online courses, and enrichment programs. Lower and middle-income families, meanwhile, too often are trapped with one option—a school in need of improvement assigned to them based on their zip code.

Some states such as Arizona, Wisconsin, and Florida have made significant progress toward providing more Kindergarten through 12th grade options for many children. Public charter schools (including online charters) and private school attendance made possible by state funded vouchers or tax credits are increasing families’ opportunities to find the right fit for their children. But these options are constantly under attack by those who represent the status quo: those who want the public school system to stay just the way it is, so it continues to provide virtually guaranteed jobs and benefits for certain teachers and administrators―regardless of the results achieved by the children they are supposed to serve.

Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman first popularized the school choice voucher concept in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. Now, a new concept is capturing the imaginations of a new generation of parents and policy makers: Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Going beyond the voucher or tax credit idea for school choice, ESAs introduce market concepts that help parents become active shoppers for educational services, thus improving their quality while reducing costs.

As Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. wrote in a major study for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice:

Education savings accounts are the way of the future. Under such accounts—managed by parents with state supervision to ensure accountability—parents can use their children’s education funding to choose among public and private schools, online education programs, certified private tutors, community colleges, and even universities. Education savings accounts bring Milton Friedman’s original school voucher idea into the 21st century.

ESAs differ from state-funded vouchers. Typically, parents can redeem vouchers only at state-approved public and private schools. In contrast, ESAs allow parents to choose among public schools, private schools, private tutors, community colleges, online education programs, and universities. In addition, ESAs allow parents to put unused funds into college savings plans, thus changing the “use it or lose it” mentality in the current public school funding system. ESAs promote user-based subsidies (like the food stamp program) rather than supplier-based subsidies that represent the current public school funding model.

Conceived of by the Goldwater Institute of Arizona nearly a decade ago, education savings accounts were first passed by that state’s Legislature in 2011 for special-needs children. In 2012 the program was expanded to children adopted out of the state foster system, children of active-duty military parents, and children in “D” and “F” failing schools. Last June, Arizona’s Governor signed a bill to expand ESAs to children entering Kindergarten and to increase funding for the accounts.

Nationally, school choice is becoming a more bipartisan issue as many Republicans are being joined by leading Democrats, such as former Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. McCurry is now chairman of the national Children’s Scholarship Fund, which provides privately funded tuition scholarships to low-income elementary school kids. He describes the school choice movement as a rare example of centrism in our increasingly polarized American politics.

And, America’s newest U.S. Senator, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, has long been a school choice advocate. Speaking back in 2001 for Cascade Policy Institute, Booker told Black students at Portland’s Self-Enhancement, Inc. how important school choice is for his fellow African Americans.

It is time for Oregon to move further toward school choice for every child, and ESAs offer an attractive way to start the journey. Already, our state has over 120 public charter schools that were made possible by passage of a 1999 bill in the Republican-controlled legislature that was signed into law by a Democratic Governor (John Kitzhaber).

In the upcoming February 2014 Oregon legislative session, Oregonians will have an opportunity to start down the ESA road with passage of the Education Equity Emergency Act (E3).* It will create Empowerment Scholarship Accounts modeled after the highly successful Arizona program. These scholarships will help level the educational playing field for kids with special educational needs, in foster care, or in low-income families. Scholarship recipients can use ninety percent of their state education funding for approved educational expenses like private schools, tutoring, education therapy, textbooks, online education programs, community colleges, universities, or college savings plans.

One E3 Act sponsor notes, “These students have had unique challenges in their lives and require enhanced educational flexibility to ensure successful degree attainment.”**

The Act is designed to impose no financial burden on the state or on the school districts that scholarship students currently attend. Scholarship participation will be capped at 0.5% of students in a school district unless a district chooses to allow additional participation.

Oregon has a history of bold experimentation in other policy areas. Now is the time to experiment with expanding the role of parents choosing and the market delivering better education for Oregon’s children. Education Savings Accounts will empower families to find better educational options, leave the “use it or lose it” funding mechanism behind, and save toward their children’s higher education. Altogether, ESAs will provide winning situations for children, their parents, and Oregon’s future.

* The Education Equity Emergency Act is in draft form as of January 7, 2014. The official bill language should be available before the session begins on February 3.

** From a letter by State Senator Tim Knopp to the Chair of the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee Mark Hass requesting a hearing on the E3 Act during the January interim legislative hearing days. The hearing is tentatively scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday, January 16.

Steve Buckstein is Founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

 

Education Savings Accounts Multiply Options for Kids

Kids do better when their parents have the freedom to choose the right kind of educational program for them, without regard to whether the program is public or private. Nine out of ten gold standard social science studies showed that vouchers improve student outcome, and 18 out of 19 showed that they positively impact regular public schools. The remaining studies showed no impact.

But vouchers still limit options. Sometimes home school or a combination of public or private school, tutoring, and home school may be the right fit. Additionally, if set too low or too high, vouchers can limit student options or artificially inflate the cost of education.

The solution? Education savings accounts, which are now available to special needs kids in Arizona. Under the new program, if a child with special needs leaves public school, a portion of the state per-pupil funding will go into a personal education savings account. The money can be used for private school tuition, online courses, tutoring, or home school curriculum. Any unspent money can be used for college within four years of high school graduation.

Such a program harnesses the benefits of vouchers, while tapping into the psychological and financial benefits of asset building. Of children who expect to one day graduate from a four-year college, those with savings accounts are six times more likely to attend college by the time they are 23.

It is time that Oregon extend such educational opportunities to our students.

Arizona’s Empowering Education Savings Accounts: An Example for Oregon

Leading by example, Arizona’s government recently passed a bill creating Arizona Empowerment Accounts. Under the new program, if a child with special needs leaves his or her traditional public school, a portion of the state funding that would have gone toward educating that student will go into an education savings account for that student. The money then can pay for other educational options: private school tuition, online courses, tutoring or homeschool curriculum. The money left when the child finishes high school can be used for college within four years of high school graduation.

This program harnesses the benefits of both vouchers and savings accounts. Vouchers have been shown by gold standard social science studies to improve educational outcomes for students who receive vouchers and even for those who remain behind in regular public schools. Nine out of the ten random assignment empirical studies found that vouchers improve student outcomes; one found no impact. 19 out of 18 studies found that vouchers positively impacted regular public schools; only one found no impact.

Vouchers help give kids the intellectual background to better succeed in life, while the savings function of the program will also likely increase students’ financial ability to attend college. Research has shown that having economic assets substantially increases kids’ educational outcomes and likelihood to attend college. Of children who expect to one day graduate from a four-year college, those with savings accounts are six times more likely to attend college by the time they are 23.

Educational savings accounts will empower families to choose the type of education that will best serve their kids, leading to better outcomes for students. Oregon’s legislators should take note and bring such great opportunities to our state.

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