Imagine for a moment that Colorado families could decide how and where their children are educated. Families are free to spend their tax dollars as they choose. This could include tutoring, online courses, or even school tuition. And whatever is not spent now could be saved and accumulated from quarter to quarter, or school year to school year.
In this scenario, the money follows the student, regardless of his or her family’s income.
Impossible? Not quite. As it turns out, a handful of states are already experimenting with this cutting-edge approach to how we think about education.
Known as education savings accounts (ESAs), the concept is remarkably straightforward. States open education savings accounts for parents using dollars that have been set aside from the state’s education budgets. From there, parents are free to spend those dollars on education-related purposes as they see fit — including school supplies and one-on-one lessons – that they believe best serve the needs of their children.
In practice, very few Americans can exercise this amount of freedom to help their children because only five states offer ESAs, and most of those have limited eligibility. But in states that do offer ESAs, parents express overwhelming support for the freedom and choice they provide.
Regrettably, Colorado is not among the states providing families ESAs. But according to a public opinion poll conducted by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, six out of 10 Coloradans say they are supportive of ESAs, including strong support among young voters (77 percent) and low-income earners (67 percent).
What’s stopping Colorado from offering ESAs? It’s a combination of things, but much of it has to do with powerful special interest groups convinced that students should have only one choice when it comes to receiving an education: a traditional public school. That may work for many, but children have unique learning needs and even the best public school isn’t the right school for every family.
But to make sure families have limited options, teacher unions spend millions of dollars supporting candidates who adhere to this strict orthodoxy. They fight against the expansion of charter schools, tax credits, and ESAs – anything that would imperil their monopoly.
They mislead the American public into believing that expanding these options would come at the expense of the public school educational system. In fact, research has shown that the opposite is true.
While Colorado has made some strides in recent years inimproving student test scores, far too many of our students are continuing to fall through the cracks. This is a particularly acute problem for minority and low-income students in our state.
This reality should drive our urgency.
ESAs and educational freedom empower families to take greater ownership of their children’s education. If a school is not working for their child, parents are able to send their child to a different school – one that better serves the child. And when a student needs additional help, families are able to dip into their ESA account to pay for tutoring and additional instruction.
This is exactly the bold thinking we need to ensure that every Colorado student is able to receive a high-quality education. Innovation is driving much of the progress we see in our daily lives. The time has come to inject some of this innovation into our education system. ESAs can help lead the way.