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To date, proposals on education and inequality from Washington and state capitals have not brought us closer to a solution. Even among those who believe that access to high-quality education programs is an essential feature of a society where upward mobility remains possible, what seems promising varies.
For instance, some have declared low-income families unfit to improve their condition. Amid a recent debate over education reform in Louisiana, a state teachers' union executive said parents in poverty have "no clue" how to choose a school for their children.
Translation: The state must decide for them.
Can government help those who are trying to help themselves? Or should elected officials identify solutions for us because we are incapable of helping ourselves?
The question is critical in education, which is the "great equalizer" according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, borrowing from the now well-known language of Horace Mann, the 19th century's Father of the Common School. For students in some areas where public schools have not leveled the playing field, the evidence that paternalistic education policy is to blame has yet to become widely understood.
Louisiana is one of these places. Between 1998 and 2007, it was the only state in the U.S. where the achievement gap between white and black students narrowed significantly in both math and reading. For years, Gov. Bobby Jindal has defended parents' freedom to choose the best school for their child and given thousands of families better opportunities. In New Orleans, in particular, the achievement gap is shrinking. This is notable because of the dramatic changes to the city's public school system after Hurricane Katrina, which included converting most of New Orleans' traditional, district-controlled public schools to charter schools (independent public schools).
Arizona is another persistently low-performing state. There, parents now have access to the most innovative status-changing opportunity in the country: education savings accounts.
Since the accounts became an option for Arizona families in 2011, the state has deposited public funds in private bank accounts that parents must use for educational services for their children. Traditional and charter public school classes are options, but not the only options. Families can also choose classes online, pay private school tuition, or any combination of these.
Parents of children assigned to failing schools can use the accounts for personal tutors to help their children catch up to their peers or find educational therapists to help address reading delays or early-learning needs. Parents can also save money in the accounts to cover the cost of educational expenses later in their child's K-12 experience or to pay for college. Nearly one in five Arizona public school students are eligible for an account.
Created by state lawmakers just three years ago, education savings accounts served more than 700 students last year, a very small fraction of Arizona's 1.1 million public school students, though participation is steadily growing. Some 2,500 families have applied for accounts that can be used next year. Most of the students using an account today have special needs such as autism, but the accounts are helping other students, too.
Just outside Phoenix, Lynn McMurray is using education savings accounts for her three adopted children, Alicia, Uriah, and Valerie. Abandoned by their biological families on Native American reservations, the three children were given up for dead at birth. Alicia has fetal alcohol syndrome and requires specific interventions, while Uriah and Valerie have mild cerebral palsy.
Even with mild challenges, traditional public schools could not meet Uriah's and Valerie's needs. Lynn uses an educational savings account to combine homeschool instruction and visits to educational therapists to help them. She doesn't need a teaching license to be passionate about helping her children or to motivate them to learn.
"They are so excited about learning now," Lynn says. "We're stepping up academically for these kids, it's a huge challenge."
There's also at least some evidence that this approach is working. Nearly 35 percent of families are using the accounts to cover the cost of multiple options, including personal tutors and online programs, according to a 2013 study released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. And a second Friedman study released last year surveyed parents using the accounts and found that all respondents reported some level of satisfaction with the accounts, even those who described themselves as "very satisfied" with their child's previous public school.
Earlier this year, the Arizona Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge from the state teachers' union and school boards association about the constitutionality of the accounts, ending a three-year lawsuit that threatened families' access to the program. The union and association claimed that education savings accounts are school vouchers, and violated Arizona's Blaine Amendment, language restricting the use of public funds for parochial and private schools. Similar language can also be found in the constitutions and laws of 40 other states.
Arizona courts have ruled that this interpretation of education savings accounts is inaccurate. With a school voucher, parents can make only one choice — a new private school for their child. Educational savings accounts offer parents a range of options.
This flexibility was not lost on Arizona's courts. Arizona Appeals Court Judge Jon Thompson, who wrote the opinion that now stands on the accounts, held, "Where [education savings account] funds are spent depends solely upon how parents choose to educate their children."
Before the Arizona high court's decision, the Blaine Amendment and similar rules in other states dampened voucher programs across the country. Educational savings accounts, an innovation in the school-choice fight, have begun to change things for some of the nation's most at-risk students.
The accounts have found a sweet spot in the catalog of interventions for low-income and underserved families. In 2013-14, the first school year that students from failing schools were eligible to apply for an Arizona educational savings account, 14 percent of student participants came from schools that earned a D or an F on the state report card.
Education savings accounts provide families with access to new — and varied — educational options. They also give parents an incentive to choose wisely. Parents can save unused funds from year to year for future educational expenses and even pay for college. So, families have good reason to find the most effective services for their child, both in terms of cost and how well their child learns.
That's why lawmakers in Mississippi, Oregon, Montana, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Missouri, to name a few states, have begun to consider education savings accounts. After an education savings account measure passed the Florida Legislature three weeks ago, parents and their children are just one signature (the governor's) away from exercising this option in the Sunshine State. Given all that activity, it's not hard to see why teachers' unions and some school districts regard educational savings accounts as a frightening reform that is here to stay.
For McMurray, the Phoenix-area mom of three, and the 3,000 families poised to use the accounts next year, education savings accounts are a way for parents to help their children prepare to help themselves.
"They need to survive in the world," McMurray says. "They need to get jobs when they grow up and get back in the community."
Jonathan Butcher is the education director at the Goldwater Institute, an independent conservative think tank dedicated to advancing freedom and protecting the Constitution.
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