The K-12 world as we knew it at the end of the 20th century still employed a 19th century factory model of schooling.
Lawmakers from various states engaged in parental choice in the form of public charter schools and private choice programs. Millions of children are on waiting lists for these choice options, a powerful indicator of parental demand.
Today a small but growing number of states are blazing a new trail with adoption of a Parental Choice 2.0 approach — commonly called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).
These accounts give some parents state-monitored bank accounts from which to finance and customize the education of their children. Participation had been limited to subsets of children, such as those with learning disabilities.
In June, Nevada made a historic step forward when Governor Brian Sandoval signed legislation giving all families with children in public school access to the program.
This represents the way of the future in K-12.
Public funding for K-12 education is guaranteed in every state constitution and is strongly supported by the public — it is here to stay. That does not mean, however, that the best way to organize such a system is through geographically defined attendance boundaries, overseen by government monopolies run by boards seated in ultra-low turnout elections.
That may have been a state-of-the-art governance technology for Prussia in the 1800s but a number of more reasonable models beckon for 21st century America. Nevada, for instance, finds itself crushed by public school enrollment growth. Policymakers literally chose between overstuffed trailer classrooms outside of relatively new district schools, or expanded parental options.
They chose wisely.
Education should operate on the basis of voluntary exchange between parents and a wide variety of service providers. School choice 2.0 is moving beyond just choice between schools to include choice between educational methods.
Account-based choice programs of the sort we now have in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee allow parents to customize the K-12 education of their children. Parents can select a number of different service providers — certified tutors, community colleges, universities, online programs, special education therapists, private school tuition, and individual public school courses.
Charter and voucher programs were the rotary telephones of the parental choice movement — an awesome technology that did one amazing thing. Education Savings Accounts are the smartphones of choice programs — they still do that one thing well, but they also do a lot of other things.
When people develop additional innovations in how to educate children, and they will, policymakers can download the app as an allowable use for the accounts.
The ability of parents to match the individual needs of their children with the strengths of providers represents the magic of parental choice. One size does not fit all.
This matching of the needs of students and the strengths of schools and providers is an inherently decentralized parent-driven process and a source for improvement that cannot be duplicated through centralized methods. The education system can improve in many ways but it will never reach its full potential unless we give parents as many options as possible to seek the best possible education for their child.
Education Savings Account programs require robust systems of financial oversight and account monitoring. The Nevada program also requires students to take tests such as the Stanford 10 or Iowa Test of Basic Skills in order to provide academic transparency to the public.
Policymakers have only begun to scratch the surface of the potential for account-based education. Lawmakers should deliberate and decide for instance on varying funding amounts according to student need regarding disability, language, or family income — and they need not be constrained by past decisions.
The sky is the limit. As a form of public education, accounts should be accessible to all students and designed to give the most to the children starting with the least.
No one knows what a typical school will look like in the year 2030.
How for instance should we best maximize the potential of technology without losing the crucial human touch? How do we honor and respect the diversity in our desires for education?
If we would like schooling to be as diverse and academically challenging and as cost effective as possible, we need to give parents the ability to shape the school system.
Accounts managed by parents with state oversight can reboot a 19th century system of schooling for the needs of 21st century America.