Fund students, not systems

Parents should have alternatives to public education.

American Experiment’s August Thinking Minnesota Poll revealed that one in four parents say they have looked outside public schools to find the inperson learning experience they want for their kids. As Minnesota’s school districts shift to less in-person instruction, families should have access to alternative learning options.

The Star Tribune reports that schools that have moved to hybrid or distance learning are unlikely to change learning models before 2021. And students will pay the price. American Experiment’s Tom Steward has reported that the number of failing grades has doubled in St. Paul’s public high schools, representing just one example of a failed experiment in virtual learning. With the local teachers’ union pushing back on prioritizing in-person instruction, parents may see even more dire outcomes.

All the more reason to fund students instead of systems.

One recent national online survey of more than 1,000 respondents conducted by Heart + Mind Strategies found that two-thirds of parents with school-aged children think that education money should follow the child. A separate online survey conducted in November by the same organization revealed that 57 percent of voters believe every child deserves access to the best possible education, including getting additional support outside of the public-school system or getting their entire education elsewhere.

This could take a couple of different forms in Minnesota.

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs help families pay for a variety of education-related products and services. A handful of states already provide ESAs to families by depositing a portion of government funding that parents can access to support their children’s customized educational needs. Minnesota could readily embrace this program and help families from all backgrounds give their children the education experience that best sets them up for success. ESAs help families choose multiple learning options simultaneously and are different from vouchers and tax-credit scholarships.

Special Education Savings Accounts. Operated similar to ESAs, special education savings accounts would assist students on Individualized Education Plans or receiving other special education-related services. Given that many of Minnesota’s most vulnerable children aren’t receiving the services they need due to school closures, the state could allocate funds to help parents access tutors, specialized therapists, or other assistance that a district under a distance learning model cannot provide. Special education savings accounts could also help alleviate the budgetary constraints districts are expected to face.

Virtual Charter Schools. Unlike distance learning from brick-and-mortar school districts, virtual schools specialize in online learning. They have curricula designed and teachers trained to provide services and engage students from a distance. By opening the doors wide to virtual charter schools, the state could introduce more flexibility and innovation into Minnesota’s education system.

Full School Choice. Tax credits and other scholarship programs would enable Minnesota families to choose an alternative to the neighborhood public schools without facing the financial barriers that prevent access to them. The Center’s Thinking Minnesota Poll conducted in September 2019 found that 75 percent of Minnesotans support allowing students in low-performing public-school districts to attend a public or private school of their choice instead of their assigned school.