Monday, February 09, 2015

Lawmakers consider giving education funds directly to parents

In at least six states from Virginia to Oklahoma, lawmakers are contemplating using taxpayer money to allow parents to design a custom education plan for their children, Stephanie Simon reports for Politico.  Twenty-one states currently subsidize tuition for students attending private schools, and while the new program would allow more flexibility, critics think it could lead to waste or lack of quality education.

The new program, called Education Savings Accounts would involve the state's giving funds it would have given to public schools directly to the parents of students. Parents could spend the funds, which would be between $5,000 and more than $30,000 per year, to pay for "personal tutors, homeschooling workbooks, online classes, sports team fees and many types of therapy, including horseback riding lessons for children with disabilities," Simon writes. "They can also spend the money on private tuition or save some of it for college."

Thus far ESAs exist only in Arizona and Florida. Last week bills to create the accounts cleared panels in Virginia and Mississippi legislatures, and the idea is likely to come up in sessions in Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and possibly Rhode Island and Tennessee. Tennessee state Rep. John DeBerry Jr., a democrat, said, "We created public education. It didn't fall from the sky. It wasn't divinely given to us. . . . If the status quo isn't working, it needs to be changed.

One example of someone already benefiting from the program is Kathy Visser. She receives $27,000 per year from Arizona to design an education plan for her 10-year-old son Jordan, who has cerebral palsy and struggled in traditional schools. Every week he attends sessions with a private reading tutor, science classes at a local museum, piano lessons, swim practice and therapeutic horseback riding. She must provide her son with education in the core subjects, but she can decide how she wants to do that.

Some traditional public school advocates do not support ESA because they don't think it's right to force taxpayers to pay for whatever curriculum a parent decides upon. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that ESAs create "an unregulated, unaccountable market. Instead of the exit strategy from public education that these programs represent, we need a renewed commitment to strong neighborhood public schools for every child." Others think the initiative will result in a two-tier education system in which families with the time and energy to take advantage of the ESAs will flourish, while those with less income, education or fluency in English will remain with the public system.

The concept of the ESA is gaining popularity because of the modern desirability of customization and also because they "offer a way to circumvent provisions in many state constitutions that prohibit spending public funds on religious schools," Simon writes. Also, in Arizona and Florida, families can ask for ESA even if their children haven't attended public school, so the state will fund private or home-based education for those who had been paying for it themselves. (Read more)

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