Building student-centered education

Imagine being able to create a tailored, made-to-order education for your child.

Perhaps you know that the private school one neighborhood over has an excellent high school mathematics program. It allows students who don't attend full time to take individual courses there, so your daughter takes an Algebra II class there three days a week.

In the afternoons, she joins a group of students of various ages who gather as part of a tutoring co-op, and takes Advanced Spanish from one tutor and an economics course from another tutor on alternating days. Two nights a week, she takes an online English literature course offered by the local state university, for which she receives dual enrollment credit. And twice a week and once on the weekend, she participates in a fencing course offered at the local community college.

Your daughter is getting a well-rounded, high-quality education that fits her learning pace and style. Sounds like a dream come true for K-12 education. But how do you pay for it?

Last month, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law an option that allows parents to craft exactly that style of a la carte education. Nevada became the fifth state to enact education savings accounts, or ESAs, and the first state to make them universally available to all students enrolled in public schools.

Instead of assigning students to the nearest brick-and-mortar public school, regardless of whether it meets their needs or is underperforming, Nevada now enables families to instead have their child's share of state education dollars deposited into a parent-controlled savings account. Parents can receive anywhere from 90 percent to 100 percent of the state per pupil allocation deposited into their ESA account, and are then able to access funds via a restricted-use debit card.

This card can be used to pay for any education-related service, product or provider. That includes private school tuition, individual courses at public schools and public charter schools, private tutors, online learning classes, curricula, textbooks, dual enrollment college courses, and a host of other education-related services and products. Parents can even roll-over unused funds from year-to-year.

Nevada's ESA option is revolutionizing education financing. The Silver State isn't the first to create ESAs (Arizona, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee now have them either fully implemented or recently signed into law), but it is the first to allow any student currently enrolled in a public school (roughly 90 percent of all Nevada students) to have an ESA.

ESAs build on the exciting proliferation of school choice now underway across the country. Today, 57 private school choice options operate in 28 states and Washington, D.C. That's significant momentum, considering the first large-scale school voucher option began in Milwaukee in 1990 and was effectively the only such program for years.

ESAs build on the very worthwhile voucher and scholarship option by enabling families to direct every single dollar in their child's account to multiple providers and products. And they include solid accountability measures, including providing receipts for expenditures to those managing the ESA programs in state agencies.

In Arizona, which pioneered the ESA option four years ago, participants have been thrilled with the option.

"When I discovered ESAs in 2011, I was floored when I found out the choices parents can have," says Holland Hines, whose son, Elias, has autism. "Parents can use the funding for home school curriculum, for therapies, for private school, for a private tutor that they can individually pick for their child - the one that they know is going to do the best job."

Amanda and Michael Howard also utilize the ESA option in Arizona. Their son, Nathan, has a mild form of autism which causes learning delays. The Howards have used their ESA to finance a combination of private schooling, home schooling, private tutoring, and speech therapy.

"It's exciting to see all the progress Nathan has made communicatively. He is really making academic progress," says Amanda. "Now he likes to learn, he likes school, and he is good at math and social studies. Two years ago we weren't sure if we would ever have a conversation with him."

The public funding of education doesn't require that education be delivered solely through zip-code assigned government schools. "ESAs put parents in full control," Holland Hines adds. And that's very good news for students.

 - Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Lindsey Burke Will Skillman Fellow in Education
Domestic Policy Studies

Originally distributed by the Tribune Content Agency