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My Turn: Education savings accounts empower parents



For the Monitor
Saturday, January 13, 2018

Last week, advocates for education who put children ahead of institutions were given a reason to smile: Senate Bill 193, establishing education freedom savings accounts, passed a critical vote in the House. If all goes well, new doors will open for parents seeking the right educational opportunities for their children.

When it becomes law, individual student accounts can be created using 95 percent of the state’s per-pupil adequate education grant designated for that specific child. The details are available online. Basically, education savings accounts will empower parents of modest means to take advantage of a wider variety of schooling options if they believe their local public school is not a good fit. Who could be against that?

The usual suspects are against it: the state’s elected Democrats; public-sector unions NEA and AFT; the ACLU; and organizations that tolerate school choice, but only for those parents rich enough to opt out of the public system.

Like Mesoamerican Aztec priests, these people have a penchant for human sacrifice. Opponents of ESAs are willing to sacrifice other people’s children on the altar of a public school system they deify.

They are also hypocrites. I haven’t read anything from ESA opponents denouncing rich parents who fail to support their local public schools when they send their kids elsewhere (depriving their districts of that state adequacy grant). The same people who never miss an opportunity to denounce “tax cuts for the rich” refuse to denounce “education choice for the rich,” and oppose efforts to expand that choice to all.

Why might more parents want that opportunity? Perhaps it has something to do with public schools’ track record. I read an article recently decrying “Disengaged Students and the Decline of Academic Standards.” The author, Paul Trout, an associate professor of English, began by stating: “It is bad enough that many students who enter college are underprepared, underskilled and generally dumbed down. What is worse is that more and more of them are entering college – according to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute – ‘increasingly disengaged from the academic experience.’”

Students are spending less time studying, doing homework and engaging in academic pursuits. Record numbers say they are frequently bored in class. Children are “sitting for hours in mental states that approach suspended animation,” learning to “get by with the least possible effort.”

Trout placed some blame for this on the “success model,” where “every student – regardless of talent, inclination and attitude – must succeed.” Academic rigor is “jettisoned to preserve self-esteem.” Lowered standards, expectations and preparation in K-12 is now poisoning higher education. In a vicious circle, colleges lower their standards to meet the (in)abilities of “college ready” high school students, while also training and certifying the “earnest pedagogues who imposed the stultifying ‘success’ model on primary and secondary schools in the first place.”

The number of disengaged students “has reached some sort of critical mass at the primary, secondary, and now college levels.” Trout proposed remedial actions and . . . oh, did I mention that this article was written in 1997?

The problems Trout highlighted two decades ago are still with us today. Solutions have been proposed, tried and failed – repeatedly – as that critical mass of disengaged students has grown. Yet the deifiers of public education refuse to question their dogma. Their faith in one system is unshaken, despite what the data show.

They can see high dropout rates, tests proving significant numbers of graduates aren’t proficient in core subjects, and higher public education spending per capita buying less education than that of our economic competitors. Yet they condemn as heretics those who seek a different path. For decades, the public education establishment has been burying its record of failure under a mound of stultifying pedagogy and arrogance.

This is what failure looks like: In the 2016-17 test cycle, students were assessed as being below proficient, partially proficient, proficient or proficient with distinction. For all New Hampshire schools in all tested grades, more than 4 in 10 students were not proficient in reading. More than 5 in 10 were not proficient in math. More than 6 in 10 were not proficient in science.

There are real children attached to each of those statistics. Advocates for ESAs see them as individual students, worthy of the chance to go to a school where they can succeed. Opponents treat them as just so much grist for the mill.

Education freedom savings accounts are part of a badly needed education system Reformation.

(Ken Gorrell of Northfield owns and operates a franchise business.)