Ohio needs to radically reform its public education, but it will never happen as long as taxpayers continue to “fund the system” instead of the individual students, says a researcher/writer with the free-market Buckeye Institute.
Greg R. Lawson, a fellow at the Columbus-based nonprofit think tank and author of Education Savings Accounts: Expanding Education Options for Ohio, testified Friday before the Ohio Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Lawson’s solution to fixing public education is to make all schools potentially public – even private ones if they wish to accept public tax dollars as tuition payment.
To to this, Lawson proposes expanding the use of education savings accounts, or ESAs. Wealthy parents have used ESAs for years, mostly as a tax-sheltered account to fund their children’s future education needs.
But what if every family were able to have an ESA?
That would level the playing field and potentially wipe out the “education gap,” which is the difference in school performance between students from white middle-class families and those living in inner cities, which tends to be poor and African-American.
Lawson and the Buckeye Institute want to make that happen by giving parents the taxpayer-funded amount now being spent on public education to individual families. They believe that would transform the system and free parents up to make the educational decisions best for their particular child.
Lawson’s vision of ESAs is similar to vouchers only more expansive. While vouchers are funded only by federal and sometimes state tax money, the expanded ESA would also include local property tax money. This, in Ohio, could easily exceed $10,000 per child per year. Vouchers also do not allow the parent to roll over unused money into the next year, while ESAs would.
“That to us is a critical piece because it allows the parent to expand on the market-based system. They would be able to use a rollover amount for a whole range of options, and use that additional money for maybe an online class, a tutor, or just roll it over to the next year and use it as a bridge for future higher education,” Lawson said. “If you can roll it over you’re going to be able to negotiate for lower prices and a broader range of services.”
He said only Arizona has a system in place that allows public money to be deposited into parents’ private accounts for the designated purpose of educating their children.
“Arizona has this but it’s only for some sub-populations and it’s only for state dollars,” Lawson told The Ohio Star. “What we are talking about is basically the reseeding of our funding of public education in Ohio, and doing it in such a way that the money is targeted at the individual level instead of really just funding the system.”
Lawson said his ideas were received rather tepidly by the 10-member committee, with a couple of the members seeming to be more interested than the rest.
But he said his proposals are intended as a way to think outside the box after years of failed big-spending education ideas that just tinker with the existing system, rather than give it an overhaul.
“I’m under no illusion you’re going to get to this point that we’re advocating overnight, because of the way the education bureaucracy thinks about things,” he told The Star. “What we are proposing is school choice, but what this really is is free school choice.”
He said no amount of spending increases will fix the current system. Yet, the loudest voices at the state Capitol always assume more money will buy better education.
“We have structures in place where you put money into a system, which has become a quasi-socialized system as you have it today, and I’m not sure how you unring that bell, so what we are essentially advising is to bring in more true market competition so you have public schools, public charter schools, private schools, online schools, home schools and tutors all able to enroll children regardless of their location or income.”
Without such reforms, schools are slowly becoming re-segregated, he said.
Testing data consistently shows a growing gap between rich and poor students, whites and African-Americans, yet the education establishment’s only answer is to spend more money on inner-city public education.
“Right now the only debate we have is about how much more money we want to spend,” Lawson said. “The only thing legislators care about is spreadsheets and how they can get more money for their districts. Most of the folks in Columbus would say we underfund schools despite all the increases. The idea here is to try to break a little outside that mold. One of the things that might help is that by using the power of the market it might loosen some level of the grip that the existing bureaucracy has over the schools today.”
According to EdChoice.com, ESAs can, in theory, allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds—often distributed to families via debit card—can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials. Some ESAs, but not all, even allow students to use their funds to pay for a combination of public school courses and private services.
“The emphasis today is about funding the system,” he said, “which has become a permanent fixture despite its failures, so what we are proposing does create change.”
In the end, Lawson said the Institute’s recommended approach would unleash parents and students from the “tried-and-failed government-imposed constraint of education by zip code.”
Following is an excerpt from Lawson’s presentation to the committee Friday:
NAEP scores — the National Assessment of Education Progress — provide a standard for measuring academic achievement across the country. Ten points on the NAEP’s 500-point scale is equivalent to approximately one grade level of learning progress.Based on NAEP achievement scores, African-American and Hispanic students in Ohio are well behind their white peers in eighth grade reading and math. Furthermore, less than 25 percent of fourth and eighth grade children eligible for free and reduced lunches were proficient in reading or math.
Even worse, major reading achievement gaps persist between low-income and minority students, and their non-minority, and more affluent peers. In 2017, eighth grade African-American students had an average NAEP reading score that was 30 points lower than that of white students. This performance gap was not significantly different from the 27-point gap 2002. Meanwhile, Hispanic students had an average score that was 15 points lower than that of white students. Students who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low family income, had an average score that was 31 points lower than that of students who were not eligible.
A similar story exists for eighth graders in math. African-American eighth grade students had an average score that was 41 points lower than that of white students, significantly worse than the 34-point gap in 2002. And Hispanic students had an average score that was 17 points lower than that of white students. Again, those students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored 36 points lower than those not eligible
Thus, significant and unfortunate academic achievement gaps persist in Ohio along racial and income-level lines, even as the state has significantly increased taxpayer funding for the lowest-wealth school districts. Something has to change.
Like most states, Ohio uses billions of tax-payer dollars every year largely to fund school “systems” rather than individual students. Academic achievement gaps that never seem to close should give policymakers a reason to question this approach to public education. Perhaps it is time for public funds to “follow” the student rather than just a school system.
Although out of the ordinary, such a proposal is not unprecedented or even very novel. Ohio charter schools, voucher programs, and scholarships, for example, fund individual students rather than systems to some degree already. In each of these cases, however, only the state-specific tax dollars — and no local funds — technically flow to students. Fully allowing local funds to fund individual students, without the embedded complexities in the current school funding formula, may begin to move the proverbial needle in the effort to close the academic achievement gaps across the state.
To that end, The Buckeye Institute supports extending Ohio’s use of ESAs, which are specialized accounts administered by the state on behalf of parents for purchasing educational products or services, to further empower parents to customize their child’s education. ESAs give parents control over how to spend the state-paid share of their child’s education funding, and create incentives for them to find the best education options at competitive prices.
Extending ESAs to include funding from both state and local education spending pools would be even bolder, and likely even more effective. It would move Ohio further away from funding the state and local education bureaucracies, permit total education funding to flow more freely and directly to families and students, and help address lingering questions raised by DeRolph regarding Ohio’s disparate school funding schemes.
Finally, an ESA-driven funding model would help reverse the re-segregation identified by this Commission’s recent report by empowering parents to send their students to a range of different schools, obtain services from a range of different providers, and allow for a customizable learning package for students rather than school systems. In the end, such an approach would unleash parents and students from the tried-and-failed government-imposed constraint of “education by zip code.”
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Anthony Accardi is a writer and reporter for The Ohio Star.