Why PA Families Deserve Gift of Education

(Lincoln Institute – by Beth Anne Mumford) What did your children want for Christmas last month? Most would probably say a new bike, an electronic gadget, or one of the items on this year’s hottest toys list.

All great gifts, but what if this was the year we gave families a truly exceptional and long-lasting gift: the freedom to choose the best learning environment for their children? After all, every child learns differently, so why not allow families to pick the school or education program that best serves the needs of their children?

This is what’s known as educational freedom and Pennsylvania could use more of it.

Recent research suggests that some of our schools are simply not providing all children with the education that is best for them. One study found that more than 200,000 students, including many in the Pittsburgh area, are trapped in underperforming schools. And the recent Nation’s Report Card, a well-respected national assessment, found that more that more than 40 percent of low-income 4th graders in Pennsylvania struggle to read at basic level.

Worse yet, our state’s own education department found that nearly half of all Pennsylvania schools reporting test results fail to meet basic academic benchmarks.

For families seeking an alternative, there are few options. Thriving charter schools have lengthy wait lists and burdensome regulations make it difficult for parents who wish to home school their children.

Some say the answer is more money. But spending is up, including in districts that serve disadvantaged students. In fact, Pennsylvania exceeded the national average in per-pupil-spending in districts serving disadvantaged students during the 2011-2012 school year. Spending is up elsewhere too, according to the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based think tank, that found that our education budget has grown nearly every year since 2007.

Instead of throwing more money at the problem, a better approach would be to inject more choices and competition into the education system and allow parents to have a greater say in where their children go to school. This includes making it easier to establish charter schools -public schools operating with greater autonomy in exchange for higher standards �” or expanding programs like the Pennsylvania Opportunity Scholarship Program and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, that provide tuition-assistance for some Pennsylvania families.

The most promising reform for educational freedom are education saving accounts (ESAs) that would allow students to use a portion of the state’s funds for their education to pay for a variety of education-related costs, including school supplies, extra tutoring, textbooks and private school tuition, just to name a few, instead of being sent directly to their district school. In essence, the money would follow the child, rather than the child following the money. Several states already have ESAs and recent polling suggests a majority of Americans, including a high number of African American and Latino respondents, support this empowering educational tool.

Unfortunately, there are powerful special interest groups that oppose the idea of allowing for greater education freedom. They remain convinced all children must learn in the same environment and believe that providing parents with even a small degree of autonomy is a threat to the entire educational system. It’s a claim that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

To be sure, for some families, the current educational system works well. But our goal should be a quality education for all Pennsylvania students, regardless of income level or ZIP code. And greater educational freedom is the best way to get there.

The new year is a wonderful time to make a down payment on our children’s future.

Beth Anne Mumford is the Pennsylvania state director for Americans for Prosperity Foundation