The Latest Innovation in Education: Empowering Parents

When it comes to education reform, fads abound but genuine innovation is rare.

Fads masquerading as “innovations” have been wreaking havoc on American elementary and secondary education for decades, including new math, open classrooms, whole language, and Differentiated Instruction, which groups children by their “learning styles.” The latest fad is psychometric testing, which collects massive amounts of non-academic, personal student data through federally-mandated statewide “accountability” assessments.

Progressive education theories fuel these fads, and the federal government is the vehicle transporting them to American classrooms from coast to coast, most notably via Common Core “state” standards, which has been likened to the “Obamacare of education.”

A variety of new educational choice programs, however, are putting parents back in the driver’s seat where they belong.

Tuition tax-credit scholarships are one example. Unlike voucher scholarships, which are funded through government appropriations, tax-credit scholarships are funded by private donations from individuals and/or businesses to non-profit scholarship organizations. Donors take credits of varying amounts off their state income taxes, and parents can use scholarships to send their children to the private schools of their choice.

Arizona was the first state to enact a tax-credit scholarship program in 1997. Today, 20 programs are operating in 16 states benefitting more than 225,000 students who are low-income, have special needs or circumstances, or would otherwise be attending a failing public school.

Education savings account (ESA) programs empowers parents over how—not just where—their children are educated, personalizing learning to unprecedented levels.

The ESA concept is simple. Parents who do not prefer a public school for their child simply withdraw him or her, and the state deposits at least 90 percent of the funds it would have sent to the public school into that child’s ESA instead. Parents receive a type of dedicated-use debit card for authorized expenses including private school tuition, online courses, testing fees, tutoring, home-school curricula, and special education therapies. Any leftover funds remain in the child’s ESA for future education expenses, including college.

ESA funds are disbursed quarterly, but only after parents submit expense reports with receipts for verification. Regular audits also help prevent misspending. If parents misuse funds they forfeit their child’s ESA and must repay misused funds or face legal prosecution.

Arizona was the first state to enact an ESA program in 2011, and such programs now exist in Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada (however, last month a judge issued an injunction against the program, leaving thousands of students in a lurch). So far this year, ESA legislation has been introduced in the District of Columbia, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Virginia. Meanwhile proposed legislation in Arizona would make virtually all students eligible for ESAs, not just those with special needs or circumstances.

Having the freedom to customize their children’s learning has resulted in an unprecedented 100 percent ESA program satisfaction rating among participating Arizona parents. Program demand is also strong, roughly doubling each year.

Parental choice programs such as these are fiscally responsible, popular, and they get results.

Sixty years ago Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman argued that just because we finance education through government that does not mean that elected officials in government know what type of education is best for other people’s children.

“Education spending will be most effective,” Friedman insisted, “if it relies on parental choice and private initiative—the building blocks of success throughout our society.”

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For the authoritative examination of the history and impact of the U.S. Department of Education and the need for innovative reforms based on educational choice and opportunity, see the Independent Institute’s widely acclaimed book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children, by Vicki E. Alger.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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