Education Secretary Betsy DeVos greets students, parents and educators at a rally for school choice Jan. 18 on Capitol Hill. (Maria Danilova/AP)

The Trump administration’s 2019 budget proposal for the U.S. Education Department was just released, and it shows the continuing support that President Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos have for expanding school choice, or alternatives to traditional public education.

For the second year in a row, the administration has proposed slashing the department’s budget while spending more than $1 billion on vouchers — which use public money for private and religious schools — and other choice programs. Congress may not approve the request, but it shows Trump’s and DeVos’s priorities.

Charter schools and vouchers are well-known choice alternatives, but there are others that are less familiar, including what’s called “Education Savings Accounts,” or ESAs. They may become more popular in states as the billionaire Koch brothers and their network plan to spend millions of dollars to push them and other efforts to privatize public education.

ESAs are personal accounts created by a state for parents to use for a range of educational costs — including private school tuition and fees, as well as private tutoring — with state education funds. The trend in ESAs is that there is no means test, part of a larger shift in some parts of the school choice movement from advocating for choice being for low-income students to escape failing traditional public schools to choice being for all families.

This is the vision that conservatives, such as the Kochs and DeVos and her longtime ally, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), want to see become reality throughout the United States. Critics say that a publicly funded school system that is open to all students cannot function without stable budgets that would be disrupted by such a choice program.

Here is a primer on ESAs written by Carol Burris, a former award-winning New York high school principal who is executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the National Association of Secondary School Principals named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. Burris has been chronicling problems with modern school reform and school choice for years on this blog. She has previously written about problems with charter schools in California and a number of other states.

 

By Carol Burris

“My personal opinion is that the 12,000 or 13,000 government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies — we call them school districts — is not the best governance model for the world we’re moving towards.” — Jeb Bush

The above definition of a public school district was given by former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) at a recent panel on Education Savings Accounts at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

At the event, Bush, who was a pioneer in the education reform movement that relied on high-stakes standardized tests for evaluation purposes and on the Common Core State Standards, argued that states should give parents tax dollars on a debit card to buy customized education services as an alternative to public schools.

The marketplace would be in charge. Parents, he said, would be “the regulators.”

Welcome to the world of Education Savings Accounts, often referred to as ESAs.

If you are not familiar with Education Savings Accounts, you should be. During a recent three-day seminar in Indian Wells, Calif., hosted by the billionaire Koch brothers, ESAs were announced as one of their identified legislative priorities of 2018. And they have already gotten started. The Koch’s 501(c)4, Americans for Prosperity, is pouring millions into an effort to defeat a November ballot referendum to overturn the expansion of ESAs in Arizona.

Last year, the Arizona legislature narrowly passed a bill making ESAs eventually available to all K-12 students in the state — despite reports of lax oversight and fraudulent spending in the state’s small existing program. Following the passage of the bill, a scrappy group of parents and teachers came together to form Save Our Schools Arizona, gathering enough signatures to put ESAs up for a public vote. The Kochs have fought to shut down the referendum in the courts and on the airwaves ever since.

Of all the various school privatization programs, Educational Savings Accounts are the most market-based and the least accountable. What they ultimately do is reduce society’s obligation to educate our nation’s youth to the dropping of tax dollars onto a debit card.

There are six states with ESA programs: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Nevada. Nevada’s program is nonoperational and unfunded. In a seventh state, New Hampshire, ESAs are likely to be approved this year. Last year, more than 20 state legislatures introduced ESA bills, with the proposed programs nearly always going by a different name.

For example, ESAs are called Gardiner Scholarships in Florida, Individualized Education Accounts in Tennessee and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts in Arizona. Despite the different names, intended to hide the joint effort by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful conservative organization, to promote the same basic bill, they operate in similar ways.

Parents pledge not to enroll their son or daughter in a public school or a charter school. In exchange, they get nearly all of what the school would have spent (usually 90 percent) placed on a debit card or in an account. The remaining 10 percent is used to fund program administration.

Parents can use the money for private or religious school tuition, online learning, books, hippotherapy (horseback riding for therapeutic purposes) and home schooling — or they can choose to spend minimal dollars on K-12 education and save for college.

There is no obligation that the curriculum that is used to teach students who use ESAs to attend private schools be developmentally appropriate, challenging or even accurate. Although a few states require parents to promise that their children receive instruction in reading, grammar, mathematics, science and social studies, what content is taught and what is learned is immaterial.

If at this point you are thinking that most taxpayers would view such an unaccountable and unregulated system as one in which families could easily be victimized by misinformation, false claims, profiteering and fraud, you would be right. This is not lost on the proponents of ESAs. That is why they have developed all kinds of language to make ESAs seem hip and cutting-edge, when they are really advocating a return to a time before the 1830s when schooling was a haphazard event for all but the wealthy.

The Language of the “Customizers”

The AEI panel that Bush introduced provided insight into how proponents “market” ESAs.

Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation referred to many ESA parents as “customizers” who buy “a la carte” education with their debit card. According to Burke, 20 percent of all Florida ESA students never set foot in a bricks-and-mortar school, which she enthusiastically embraced as success.

Adam Peshek of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education proposed that individual teachers go into business for themselves by recruiting students for their “micro schools.” He suggested that they could charge students $100 a session to attend. ESAs, he said, will lead to the “next generation of accountability” modeled after Yelp and Urbanspoon.

Peshek views ESAs as a gamble in innovation, saying that ESAs allow “you to make small bets in education where if it works, great.” And “if it doesn’t work, no problem, because you’re making small bets and you’re adjusting in real time.”

But there is a problem he didn’t mention. Those “small bets” are made at kids’ expense.

Panelist Jonathan Beckam of Step Up for Students described how his organization, with the help of “two big companies,” created “the largest online marketplace for ESAs.” Here is how he described his work:

“So from a family’s perspective, it’s really like an Amazon shopping experience. I can log on to this private marketplace. I can see thousands of products and services that are preapproved for acceptable use for my program. I can click into those products and get detailed product information and availability for it. I can add it to my shopping cart and check out using my ESA funds directly.”

When the panel was over, it was time for questions. An earnest young man from the University of Georgia asked the following:

 “The University of Georgia is in one of the poorest counties in the state of Georgia: Adams Clark County. A bunch of parents are working two, three jobs to help their children get by and to, you know, possibly save up so their children can get a better life than they did. My question for you is: With all of these programs, with this $21,000 you were talking about, how do you work with giving the parents the time to get as involved as we would want them to be? How would we — how do you work with giving the parents the time as well as that money?”

The host responded: “I will hold off that. Thank you for that one, and we’ll take a question here.”

All of the talk of customization, a la carte services and the glorification of choice, is designed to entice parents to support what many people see as an unsustainable and irresponsible system were it to become widescale.

ESAs are a mechanism to change the way we fund education by assigning each child a backpack full of cash. How much is in the backpack would be determined by the state. Over time, if parents want more than some basic educational services, they would need to kick in money themselves. It is the Chilean model. As money is drained from school districts, services go down, resulting in more students exiting with their funding, leaving still less for those who remain.

Beth Lewis, one of the co-founders of SOS Arizona, knows exactly what happens over time when school choice becomes the means to undermine public education.

“In the past two decades in Arizona, we’ve seen millions of public dollars diverted to private schools through ESA vouchers and other programs,” she said. “In this same time period, our state leaders have strategically divested in our public schools, driving us down to 49th in the nation in teacher pay and per-student spending. Arizona is a cautionary tale of what can (and will) go wrong with the privatization of our public schools.”

And there is no reason to believe that the Koch brothers and other right-wing libertarians such as the DeVos family will stop with public schools. As Texan Stacy Hock told The Washington Post at the Kochs’ Indian Wells soiree, K-12 education is on the agenda because it is the “lowest-hanging fruit for policy change in the United States.” Easy pickings may not be final pickings for those who want to commercialize every aspect of America’s public services.