Give parents wide latitude on ESA uses—and give teachers accounts, too

An athletics coach at Noble High School in Noble, Oklahoma, wants kayaks for his students so they can learn to navigate on the school’s pond. One option for making the project a reality would be DonorsChoose, a foundation that already has funded 61 projects at the school.

Editor’s note: This commentary from Mike Goldstein, a former Boston charter school administrator, appeared last week on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s website.

Chicken Coops, Trampolines and Tickets to SeaWorld: What Some Parents are Buying with Education Savings Accounts.” That’s the title of a news story from The 74, cross-posted to the The Guardian, about states like Arizona that are passing laws giving parents money to use for private or homeschooling.

The emailed version is titled “ESA Boondoggle.” The charge? “Some find the rules, as one former state chief put it, ‘incredibly permissive.’”

Under the excitable headline is a balanced article. These Arizona parents aren’t just buying books and tutoring with their education accounts; they’re also buying kayaks, skating lessons, and roping lessons. One poor vendor gets the raised-eyebrow treatment: “The sword casting instructor, for example, said he would teach students ‘archaeology, physics, history and metallurgy.’”

I’m not here to debate the usual stuff: Who decides, parents or educators, on the last 1 percent of dollars spent? Who decides what is a reasonable expenditure?

Instead, my contrarian take is four-part:

  • All these scary examples seem goodto me. The number one enemy of K–12 is boredom.
  • Public school teachers are already—and appropriately—doing all of these things. (More on that below.) It’s not just parents.
  • Public schools are hit or miss on what they’ll approve. So many teachers have to privately fundraise for their individual pet projects. But they shouldn’t! The stuff that only oneteacher wants to do is precisely what will make it a unique experience for the kids.
  • My proposal: Rather than hem in the ESA program, we should create “Teacher Mega-ESAs” for preciselythis type of individual teacher spending. A few such teacher choice programs already exist, but they are small.

A Boston elementary school teacher has twenty kids at $25,000 per student per year of government spending. Why is her discretionary share of that $500,000 just a few bucks? Why couldn’t she control $10,000 per year (2%) to spend directly on her students? Why does a school administrator get to control all 100%?

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BY Special to NextSteps