GUEST COLUMN: Far too many kids are still left behind

 

Thousands of National School Choice Week celebrations are taking place to remind us that access to more learning options makes a difference for thousands of students in Colorado and across the nation.

But the concept of "school choice" doesn't go far enough to provide the flexibility many Colorado young people need to excel. Providing needy students and their families with their "education debit cards" would offer them the chance to customize an effective learning path and shape their destinies.

While some small improvements have been observed in our state's top-down system of funding and governing K-12 education, far too many kids still are being left behind. We see the signs early. Despite well-intentioned prescriptive efforts to address early childhood literacy, more than a quarter of Colorado third-graders still can't read at grade level. Broader education reform plans have barely chipped away at stubborn achievement gaps and high dropout rates.

Many struggling kids need more than an escape route from the current system; they need to acquire a sense of ownership and to envision a path to success. Today the state assigns many children to failing schools, or to schools that just don't serve them well. What if instead, Colorado could give them a debit card, or savings account, that could be used to choose their educational services?

With Colorado Flexible Lifetime Learning Expenditure (C-FLEX) Accounts, each year the state would deposit into a participating family's account what the state would have spent on that student.

Either way, C-FLEX would put a wide range of educational options within the student's reach. The family could use the funds to help pay private school tuition. They also could choose to purchase educational services that include tutoring, textbooks, online courses, or therapies and interventions that address special learning needs.

Money left over would remain in the account, and could be used to defray the ever-increasing costs of a college education.

Parents would have direct control over how the money is used to serve the unique needs of their child, the son or daughter they know best. C-FLEX would create the ultimate in direct accountability. The student could not be taken for granted as an object that brings in extra cash to a school district, but rather as a customer whose C-FLEX account could be spent with another provider that offers a better service.

Adding appeal to this paradigm shift is the fact that another state, Arizona, launched its Empowerment Savings Accounts four years ago. The ESA program helps hundreds of students with identified special needs or who were attending one of the state's more academically challenged schools.

Arizona's experience sets the table for Colorado in two ways. First, they have developed systems to effectively prevent misuse of debit cards. Second, they have withstood a legal challenge with victories at every level. The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the program as constitutional, noting that "parents are given numerous ways in which they can educate their children suited to the needs of each child with no preference given to religious or nonreligious schools or programs."

National and Colorado voter surveys have found healthy majorities support education savings accounts. The popularity is justified. After all, such a flexible alternative model can serve many students alongside a system of traditional, charter, and private schools, all while saving money for the state's taxpayers.

While Arizona has successfully pioneered the education debit card, we can achieve the next level of "customer service" by going further to help families that lack needed information.

C-FLEX could include access to a network of knowledgeable "learner advocates". It's a great time to celebrate the choice of schools many Coloradans enjoy. But it's also time to move past the old and familiar with C-FLEX accounts that would help many more students unleash their potential.

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Paul Lundeen is state representative for House District 19 and former chairman of The Colorado State Board of Education.

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