August 10 2012
Now that Virginia has become the 18th state to give private school choice a public boost (via a limited tax credit), the time may be right to move forward with more robust measures that could extend the benefits of free choice more widely.
The Old Dominion could draw inspiration from an expansion of choice that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law for her state in May.
Through the use of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the law helps three groups: school-age children of active members of the armed services, children who have been adopted out of the foster system or who are in the process of a finalized adoption and students in public schools that received a grade of D or F on Arizona's performance report card.
The ESA program allows eligible parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive 90 percent of their per-pupil funding for deposit into an education account. Parents then may withdraw money from their ESAs to pay for private-school tuition, online instruction, tutorial services, textbooks or future college expenses.
Matthew Ladner, senior adviser to Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, explained the premise of the ESA: "Students need the broadest possible market among education delivery methods, and true ownership of funds, in order to break decades of stagnation in our schooling practices."
Essentially, the ESA enables eligible families to customize their children's education, drawing on private-sector resources as necessary. Blended learning, which is already growing briskly, could become a hugely important model as parents shopped for the best instruction for their children.
Teachers can use the latest advances in digital learning to direct instruction to individual students' strengths and weaknesses. Parents, some of them engaged in home schooling, play a central role.
An ESA revolution could particularly help military families, who sacrifice so much to serve their fellow Americans. And military ESAs could be especially valuable in Virginia, home to the largest population of school-age dependents of active-duty military (78,609 in 2011) among the 50 states.
Department of Defense data indicate that military children typically attend six to nine different school systems through their K-12 years, with more than two transfers in high schools.
Underscoring the angst of military families as they scramble to find adequate schooling is the sad reality that about half of public schools enrolling military dependents fail to meet basic state standards.
Independent Women's Forum scholar Vicki Alger argues in a recent study that the creation of military ESAs by Congress (drawing on existing GI Bill benefits) as well as by the states would give military families a much-improved shot at finding quality schooling.
Facilitating private choices as opposed to just adding to the public rolls would save states and localities significant money — a combined $92 million nationally if just 1 percent of military kids used ESAs to go to private schools instead of public ones, according to the IWF study.
Certainly, students stuck in persistently failing public schools — including those youngsters from minority groups historically ill-served by governmental institutions — could be one of the largest groups to benefit from the liberating choice of ESAs. In Arizona, more than 94,000 such children will become eligible when the program starts in the 2013-14 school year.
To do something comparable, Virginia first needs to reform its broken system of school accountability. Accrediting Virginia schools when just three-fourths of students manage to pass reading and math tests camouflages a large contingent of students who struggle terribly.
The reality becomes sadly clear when 90 percent of eighth-graders pass Virginia's reading test but only 36 percent of them attain proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
With an honest accountability system in place, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts could begin helping Virginia parents draw on a vast array of private choices to lift their children out of failure and onto the road to success in life.