Education Savings Accounts Duel in Florida

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Look for the Goldwater Institute study on using Education Savings Accounts as a vehicle for school choice next week. Meanwhile, they are already dueling over the concept in Florida. In this corner, Patricia Levesque from the Foundation for Excellence in Education represents the good guys with Let the Parents Choose.

In the opposing corner, representing the good but misguided faction, Betty Castor with Don’t Endanger Our Schools.

Notice the difference in emphasis regarding students vs. schools.

Those of us who support a fundamental overhaul of our system of schooling have a great deal of work to do to get people to understand that the methods of public schooling are fundamentally at odds with the ideals of public schooling. If you had to start from scratch, who in their right mind would order up the system we have today? Castor is right that Florida public schools have made a great deal of progress, and no one enjoys celebrating it more than me. It bears mentioning however that many of the people working Florida’s public school system fought the changes that produced those gains tooth and nail.

They were **ahem** completely wrong last time, but never mind that, this idea is dangerous so everyone run to your corners and Let’s Do the (2002) Timewarp Again!!!!

A decade ago, Florida’s public school establishment and their many willing accomplices in more than a few Florida newspapers were busily throwing up a firestorm over Governor Jeb Bush’s reforms. We all know how that ended: with Florida’s low-income, Hispanic and Black students outscoring statewide averages on NAEP.  Before we give any credence to the Little-Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf crowd, note that Florida has been offering children with disabilities all of their state money in the form of a voucher since 1999. Last year, 5% of children with disabilities utilized the program. That’s right- only 5% after a decade.

What do we know about the program? Participating parents love it and scores for children with disabilities are way up in Florida in part because of competition from the program. Oh, and it helps curb mislabelling of children into special education.

Ummmm…..where is the apocalypse? The mad rush for the exits? The terrible harm to schools and students?

The magic of the McKay program, and choice more generally, is that you don’t actually have to use it to benefit from it. Parents of children with disabilities now have the ability to walk with their feet if they think their school has served their child poorly, or that another school would do a better. The fact that only 5% of parents have actually pulled the trigger doesn’t matter much because all parents have the potential ability to pull the trigger. There are constraints, of course, most notably the availability of private options, but you get the point.

Nationwide, 2% of children with disabilities attend private schools at school district expense. Generally speaking, they were the kids with parents who had the ability to hire fancy attorneys who specialize in federal disability law. Sometimes these kids have successfully sued the district to get to a private school, sometimes a consensual agreement is reached for a private placement. Sometimes it is consensual, and other times it is “consensual” in the sense that districts are pretty good at figuring out when they would lose a lawsuit and cut their losses.

In any case, McKay gives parents who don’t have fancy lawyers power- the power to leave. McKay children stopped being a largely captive audience and became more like a client- a client you can lose if you fail to satisfy them.

This is what the education savings account concept is about: power for parents. The customer is King, and I want to give parents as close to full sovereignty over the education of their child as possible, down to the penny. This goes well beyond whether I should have choice over whether I send my child to a charter or a district school, or a private or district school. The idea is to allow every parent to customize an education for their child based upon their unique needs and interests from as wide an array of education service providers as possible: whether from public schools, private schools, virtual schools, private tutors, trade schools or colleges and university courses. Parents should be able to judge opportunity costs and cost-effectiveness, and save money over time for university expenses.

Would this spell the end of public schools? Hardly- did McKay end public schooling for children with disabilities? Yes but if McKay gave options beyond private schools, maybe 10% of students may have left instead of 5%!

EEEEEEEEEEEEEK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Would it change education savings accounts change the way schools operate? Yes- for the better.

What about equity concerns? Give disadvantaged children greater funding weights than the current public school funding system.  Can anyone seriously justify $1,500 from the feds as making a serious dent in the role poverty plays in education, especially when often only half of it reaches the classroom? Who wants to stand up to defend a system of school funding which covertly gives far more to the children with the most, cleverly disguised in district averages? Can we really go on ignoring the abject failure of state funding equity lawsuits without seriously revamping the broken power structures of urban districts which often absorbed massive amounts of additional funds without producing significant improvement?

We can do much better than this- and putting parents in charge is the right way to do it.

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One Response to Education Savings Accounts Duel in Florida

  1. As Matt would say, “BOOOOOOOM!!!!!”

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