Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Say hey to the ESA (Updated)

If you have kids in school, or if you've simply paid attention to school-reform debates, you know one common theme is the question of class size. While the evidence doesn't necessarily bear out the value of small pupil-to-teacher ratios, it seems intuitive enough: How many other desk-warmers can squeeze into the room without taking away from the attention your precious little darling needs and deserves from her teacher?

But we live in a world of scarce resources, including talent. Given the importance of good teachers -- which is both intuitive and supported by the evidence -- the push for ever-smaller class sizes presents two problems. First, it means hiring more and more teachers, not all of whom will be great at what they do. Second is a moral dilemma as to how many kids should be exposed to our very best teachers. Fifteen at a time? Twenty?

"What about millions?" asks Clint Bolick, vice president of the free-market Goldwater Institute in Arizona.

"We have the technology" to do that, Bolick argued this past fall at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation's annual policy briefing (watch his speech here ). "Look at … Khan Academy, where kids are going online and learning all kinds of advanced subjects. But we don't have a public policy that accommodates that."

Well, we don't have such a public policy in Georgia. But in Arizona, Bolick and his colleagues developed Education Savings Accounts with the goal of doing just that.

Arizona's ESA initially was limited to foster children and kids with disabilities. It has since been expanded to cover military families and students in schools given a grade of D or F by the state.

"If you're an eligible child and leave the public schools," Bolick explained, "the state deposits 90 percent of what it would have contributed to your education into a savings account. It's like a Health Savings Account.

"It can be used for any educational purpose. It can be used for private school tuition. But it can also be used for distance learning, it can be used for tutoring, it can be used for computer software. It can be used to purchase discrete classes at public schools or at community colleges."

But there's another big benefit, one that gives parents an incentive to be cost-conscious when using ESA funds -- and which, in turn, should promote price competition among schools and services seeking those dollars. Any money not spent on k-12 education can be used for college.

"Just think about what this would mean for low-income kids," Bolick said.

Combined with other tools Georgia already has, such as charter schools and tuition tax-credit scholarships, ESAs could stimulate the innovation needed to ensure a quality education for every child.

"Instead of the state being a monopoly provider of k-12 education, they continue to provide an option," Bolick said. "But the Education Savings Accounts simply fund and enable education to take place, and allow kids to take advantage of whatever opportunities our market provides.

"When we think about where we stand in the world in terms of our k-12 educational system, I don't like looking up at countries like Lithuania and Poland, and we cannot afford to do that for much longer."

UPDATE: A newly released poll by the American Federation for Children finds 63 percent of Georgians would support a program similar to the ESA. Republican primary voters, women, African-Americans and parents with school-age children were most likely to voice support. A plurality or majority of each demographic group listed in the cross-tabs say such a program should be open to all students.

(Note: While I was on vacation, I had three columns in the print edition of the AJC that haven't appeared on the blog. I'm going to post them here over the next couple of days so that y'all have a chance to read and discuss them and, of course, tell me what I got wrong.)


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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.