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New ESA Momentum Could Make 2015 “Year of School Choice: Part II”

One bit of wisdom I’ve gleaned in my young life is that when it comes to movies, the sequel is most often not as good as the original. There are exceptions, yes, but it’s a good rule of thumb. When it comes to education policy, though, I fully hope and expect the trend to be bucked.

For those who don’t remember, back in 2011 when I was 5 years old (just like I am now) we had the fabulously successful “Year of School Choice,” with lots of new and expanded legislative programs across the nation. A Politico article last Friday caught my attention by strongly suggesting that history may repeat itself in 2015 — sort of:

Bills to create [Education Savings Accounts] cleared panels last week in the Virginia and Mississippi legislatures. They’re likely to be on the table as well this session in Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and possibly Rhode Island and Tennessee.

Politico writer Stephanie Simon may want to include Colorado in that list. House Bill 1196 by Rep. Paul Lundeen proposes a version of ESAs known as C-FLEX (Colorado Flexible Lifetime Learning Expenditures) Accounts. During School Choice Week, Lundeen penned an introductory piece for his hometown Colorado Springs Gazette:

C-FLEX would put a wide range of educational options within the student’s reach. The family could use the [designated state] 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.

As introduced, HB 1196 would give this new level of flexibility and parental control to special needs and gifted students, plus an additional 5,000 slots, all of whom must be enrolled currently in a Colorado public school (or be an incoming kindergartener… yippee!).

I don’t know about the other ESA bills in consideration around the nation, but HB 1196 also includes a provision that would require participating families to spend a small portion of their funds on the services of a “learner advocate,” someone to help them navigate the K-12 system, as well as other choices and alternatives. Maybe those advocates would look a lot like the school choice consultants (including in Denver) who are featured in a new Education Week story:

“I think middle-income families who wouldn’t have paid for education consulting [before] are now because of the complexity of the options,” said Elizabeth Perelstein, the founder of a White Plains, N.Y.-based consulting firm, School Choice International. “No parent wants their child to be at a disadvantage.”

To be successful, education consultants have to be in the know: They research curricula, visit schools, track achievement-related data, and are wired into local parent networks. They help families identify schools that match their children’s needs and demystify application and enrollment processes that can differ vastly from what has been the norm in the education system for decades.

I’ve shared before how access to quality information is one of the two main challenges of opening up a school choice market through policy. While more affluent families are already finding ways to access that information, a neat thing I see about the C-FLEX idea is that it would level the playing field for families who participate. (Hopefully, the doors would open wider to more students as time goes on.)

The Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Matt Ladner compares charters and vouchers to the “rotary phone,” and ESAs to the “iPhone.”

If that’s the case, then a 2015 sequel to the “Year of School Choice” would be more than history repeating itself. According to my Dad, it would be like a high-tech Godfather: Part II.