Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Ohio should adopt education savings accounts

Photo Credit: Independent Institute
Let's face it, the demographics are not on our side.

Based upon 2030 census projections, there will be a large increase in the number of K-12 students in the United States.  The under-18 population is projected to increase 11.3 million by 2030, while Ohio's youth population is projected to decrease by about 100,000.

But that doesn't mean Ohio won't have issues with education because the over-65 population is going to continue it's current trend in the state and increase.

And what happens when the Baby Boomers (born between 1944 and 1964) reach 65? They become eligible for property tax breaks, homestead exemptions and, because they are on "fixed" incomes, less likely to support increased school funding via levies.

The bottom line is that school districts will have less funding while many in the state see an increase in the number of students.

The same old - same old, won't work ... which is why Ohio should follow Arizona and Florida in establishing an educational savings account (ESA) for all K-12 children.

Ohio is already known for the number of school choice options it has available, but an ESA could replace them all and give all parents (not just certain ones) a choice for their child's education.

ESAs work very much like a 529 college savings account, except it's the state, not the parent, adding funds to the account.

It works like this:

The state sets an amount of funding for each school-aged child.  Sometimes it's the exact amount the state would give a local school on a per-pupil basis; sometimes it's a little bit less.

The money is deposited into an ESA account and the parent can draw upon those funds for certain approved items - everything from private school tuition to tutoring to transportation to special enrichment classes that aren't offered at the local school. They can even use it for college classes while still in high school.

Anything not spent in a year rolls over and accumulates in the child's name.

The states already operate a similar system with food stamps, giving out debit-like cards to be used only for approved purchases, so this concept shouldn't be too hard to implement.

Yes, there are a lot of stories about waste, fraud and abuse in the food stamp EBT card system, but the lessons states have learned about preventing those should help them devise a similar robust system for ESAs.

Plus, having Arizona and Florida to turn to, there will be even more good advice on how to design and implement such a system in Ohio.

The future educational options should be more than just government-funded coupons that allow parents to choose between public and private schools.

We need to think about education as more than just an assembly line that we run kids through based upon their physical age.  ESAs would work well to allow parents to tailor the education to the needs of the child.

Of course there will be a lot of opposition to such a massive change - primarily from public school districts who have had a monopoly on education for so long.

But if those public school districts - teachers and administrators - really want what's best "for the children," they should allow every child to have a choice and then compete with the other options for the students.

It's certainly doable and it would allow children to have the education that best suits them - but it would take considerable political will and personal strength to make such a massive change in the structure of K-12 education.

Does Ohio have such a champion?  Probably not now. But, as the demographics show, we're going to have to do something soon or the children will be the ones who suffer the most.

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