Why It’s Time To Disrupt The Government Education Status Quo

Every once in a while, an idea comes around that fundamentally changes an industry. Think of Napster in music distribution, Facebook in social media and Uber in transportation. Change seldom happens overnight. Resistance is inevitable. But if done right, disruption wins out.

In education policy, Education Saving Accounts (ESAs) may be the disruption necessary to spur innovation and competition in a system that is leaving many young adults ill prepared to enter a changing and competitive workforce.

At the heart of ESAs is the idea that parents should have the ability to customize their own child’s education. In other words, rather than thinking that every child should attend a traditional public brick and mortar school, ESA supporters argue that parents should have direct control of taxpayer money to decide what form of education works best for the child. Options include private schools, virtual and blended learning. The money could also be used for textbooks and tutoring.

In practice, ESAs work similarly to conventional 529 college saving accounts. The big difference is government would contribute directly to the education savings accounts and hand over decision making directly to parents. The money could only be used for approved education costs.

It’s a bold concept quickly winning over supporters.

At the heart of ESA’s is the idea that parents should have the ability to customize their own child’s education

Among those include U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who recently introduced the Native American Education Opportunity Act, a bill that would allow increased education customization options for Native Americans living on Indian reservations. In a release announcing his support for the legislation, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate said, “It is unconscionable to leave Native American students stranded in failing schools when we can create the option of expanding educational opportunities on Indian reservations now.”

Like other ESA bills that have been enacted around the country — including one in the lawmaker’s home state of Arizona — the Native American Education Opportunity Act would let Native American families pay for school tuition and other discretionary education spending. This approach is a marked departure from how we have thought about education spending.

Supporters of ESAs argue that greater education spending hasn’t led to better outcomes —especially in school districts with large minority populations. This extends to Native Americans attending schools in Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools. “Encouraging private schools to compete with BIE schools can improve K-12 education, even in the most remote parts of Indian Country,” McCain said.

According to a recent U.S. News story, young Native Americans “post the worst achievement scores and the lowest graduation rates of any student subgroup.”

Arizona State Sen. Carlyle Begay, a former Democrat turned Republican and a Native American, spoke favorably of McCain’s bill and expressed urgency in the need to act.

Arizona state Sen. Carlyle Begay, R-Ganado, formally announces his switch from the Democratic to the Republican party at the Arizona Capitol Monday, Nov. 23, 2015, in Phoenix. Begay is a strong supporter of school choice legislation to help Native American students. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“Are American Indian children failing the education system or is the education system failing American Indian children? This bill is a step toward rebuilding our communities through education by giving all tribal parents the options and resources they are requesting,” Begay said.

Other groups are coming out in support of the bill include the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group supportive of school choice. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” Matt Frendeway, the group’s spokesperson, told Opportunity Lives. “The bill remains popular among the constituents it will serve and the evidence is overwhelming that children trapped in federally funded BIA schools need school choice.”

But with so much control and money at stake, opposition to ESAs and the broader education reform movement calling for greater customization is fierce.

Among those leading the charge is Dianne Ravitch, a former U.S. Education Department official and professor at New York University who has been highly critical of public charter schools and efforts to allow parents and families greater choice in education.

“I cannot explain why Republicans are so unwilling to call vouchers by their rightful name. They have come up with all kinds of euphemism (‘opportunity scholarships,’ ‘education savings accounts,’ etc.), but a voucher is a voucher is a voucher,” she wrote in a recent blog post.

Still, supporters of ESAs are convinced that the future of education will involve greater customization at a time when consumers are demanding greater choice in other industries. Demand is growing, but work remains to convince skeptics. But if supporters are able to figure out how to drive demand for greater customization in education among the public, it’s hard to see how we think about education will ever be the same.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter:@IzzyOrtega.