Education Savings Accounts and Learning in the 21st Century

A few weeks ago, Wired magazine editor Joe Pugliese told readers a story that should sound familiar to anyone who followed the careers of computer icons Bill Gates and Steve Jobs: Pugliese almost didn’t finish college because life outside the classroom was more interesting.
“By the time I was 20 I had found full-time work as a designer, and I was serially ditching class in favor of time at the office,” Pugliese wrote in the September issue. “Prerequisites and lecture halls seemed like a distraction from the place where I knew I was learning the most—the real word.”

Today, students across the globe can learn in more ways than we can count, from books to YouTube videos to free online classes hosted by Harvard and MIT to computers installed on the sidewalk (even Wired magazine has partnered with the University of Southern California to create a graduate program). To better prepare every child for a successful future, parents, lawmakers, and educators need a new definition for what it means to learn. And one classroom might not be enough for a student.

Had Pugliese’s teachers recognized he was bored, clearly they would have tried to make their lessons more useful for the “real world.” No educator wants his students to be unprepared for life. Horace Mann inscribed the mission of generations of educators when he called education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men,” a phrase U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would repeat some 150 years later.

Yet how can education fulfill this noble treatise if schools can’t keep students in the classroom, or the very least, interested in the classroom?

Today, public education’s challenge is not just to limit the number of students dropping out of school, though that is critical. The percentage of students dropping out has been nearly cut in half since 1990, from 12 percent to 7 percent.

The implications of this decrease are profound. For example, black men of working-age (20 to 34) without a high school diploma are more likely to be in prison than employed, according to Pew research. A diploma may have far-reaching effects for these men.

But just attending school or even finishing high school isn’t enough. Students need to be challenged and inspired by learning experiences that meet their needs so that they can have a chance at the American Dream.

Education savings accounts provide parents and their children with the flexibility to choose from multiple learning options at the same time. As this blog has explained, education savings accounts, now law in five states, are bank accounts complete with debit cards that allow families to buy educational products and services for their children.

In Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada, eligible families have more educational options than just their child’s assigned public school. The state deposits funding in each account, and families can pay for personal tutors, textbooks and curricular materials like science kits, online classes, private school tuition, and college classes. Families can even save money from year to year.

In Arizona, the Howard family uses Nathan’s account to pay for tutoring services and private school tuition. The Visser family educates Jordan at home, swiping his education savings account card with different vendors in order to combine therapy services and educational instruction. The McMurray family uses the accounts to participate in extracurricular activities offered by a public school. Research finds that more than one-third of accountholders use their education savings account for multiple learning options.

This is the future of learning. For some students, it may just be a new school. Or a tutor to help them keep up with their classmates. For others, it could mean enrolling in classes offered on the other side of the world or using an iPad—with a data plan—to learn math with an app.

Education savings accounts allow for one or all of these options. Every Georgia child should have access to the future of learning.

Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

“Discrimination” or Religious Freedom? Religious Hiring Rights and Government Contracts

Recently, a broad coalition of groups sent a letter to President Obama urging him to require the Attorney General to “review and reconsider” a “flawed” Office of Legal Counsel memo—issued in 2007 (i.e., during the Bush Administration)—that argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act provided the basis for exempting faith-based organizations that contracted with the government from legal requirements that forbid taking religion into account in certain hiring decisions. The letter asserts that the memo relies on “flawed legal analysis” and offers a “broad and erroneous,” indeed “dangerous,” “interpretation of RFRA,” “permitting the grantee to discriminate in hiring with taxpayer funds without regard to the government’s compelling interest in prohibiting such discrimination.”

This is just the latest skirmish in a long-running battle. Here’s a snippet of something I wrote about it ten years ago:

One of the central bones of legislative contention, evident once again in the recent House debate over the Workforce Investment Act, is connected with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts, which exempts faith-based organizations from legal strictures against religious discrimination. Churches and other faith-based organizations are, in other words, permitted to take religion into account when they hire employees, a provision upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court in the 1987 case Corporation of the Presiding Bishop v. Amos.

Opponents of the [Bush Administration’s] faith-based initiative cry foul when this legal exemption is explicitly extended to government contractors, as it was in the original [1996] charitable choice legislation, and as it has been proposed in several recent pieces of legislation. They want no part, they say, of government-funded religious discrimination, regardless of what religious groups are permitted to do on their own dimes.

The arguments, or rather slogans, of those opposed to the religious hiring rights of faith-based government contractors haven’t really changed. Taking religion into account is, they insist, discrimination, made worse by the fact that those engaging in it are taking government dollars.

The current version of the dispute involves the way in which the OLC memo deploys the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on behalf—of all things—the religious liberty of government contractors. RFRA—passed overwhelmingly during the Clinton Administration but recently by and large abandoned by those on the political Left—requires that laws and regulations that limit religious freedom be justified by a compelling state interest and represent the least restrictive means to attain that interest. It is supposed to provide individuals and organizations a basis for claiming an exemption on generally applicable laws that burden their religious liberty. Most frequently such claims would be made in court and weighed by a judge. The OLC memo represents an administrative, rather than a judicial, determination that even laws that explicitly prohibit government contractors from hiring in accordance with religious criteria—not discriminating against people, but hiring those who support the mission of the organization (a right, by the way, that would seem uncontroversial in almost any other setting)—have to accommodate the religious freedom of the contractors.

You might ask how an Administration could defy the express will of Congress if it passes a law that forbids taking religion into account when hiring for participation in a particular government-funded program. The answer to this question begins with the following consideration: unless the law explicitly repudiates RFRA, the executive is charged with enforcing both laws and reading them in a way that renders them, so far as possible, consistent with one another. So the executive must first ask, in accordance with RFRA, whether the burden on religious freedom represented by the hiring prohibition represents a compelling state interest. The most obvious answer is that, since there are plenty of laws that actually acknowledge the religious hiring rights of government contractors, denying those rights in this instance can’t be a compelling state interest. In other words, RFRA trumps the prohibition in the law.

What’s more, I think that this conclusion is not only good law, but also good policy. Let me summarize the argument I made at greater length ten years ago. A diverse country is best served, not by a uniform, monolithic, and homogeneous social service sector, but by an array of organizations that represent genuinely different approaches to addressing our social problems. A healthy civil society is a diverse civil society. Government should respect and foster that diversity rather than diminish it. The demand that “government not fund discrimination”—usually connected with a demand that government expand its programs for the needy—is for all intents and purposes a demand that government secularize society, that nongovernmental organizations be simple extensions of their government sponsors. This isn’t good for the needy or for the society at large.

Let’s hope that the Obama Administration continues to ignore the importuning of those whose crabbed view of religious liberty would increasingly diminish the role of religion in society.

Georgia and the Future of Learning

Perla Macias pulled her son, Albiery, out of their local school in Arizona because he was not getting the attention Perla thought he needed to succeed. “It was sad because he didn’t even want to go to school some days,” Perla says.

Perla is like every mom—she wants the best for her children in and out of school. Fortunately for Perla and Albiery, they live in one of five states where lawmakers have allowed students to use education savings accounts to find unique learning experiences that may include online classes, personal tutors, private schools, public school classes, and college savings plans, among other uses, all with the same account.

With an education savings account, the state deposits public funds in a private account that parents use to purchase educational products and services for their child. In 2015, Georgia lawmakers considered legislation that would have allowed state families to use the accounts, but the legislation stalled.

Albiery’s new school has brought out his interests in new subjects, and Perla is excited to use his account to support him with whatever he needs to succeed. “He wants to be an architect, and I’m so happy for that,” Perla says.

In this three-part series, the Georgia Center for Opportunity will explain why Georgia needs to give parents this flexible educational option, how education savings accounts change the way we think about learning, and how the accounts work in states that have already enacted laws: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada.

Georgia families, like those all over the country, need better learning options. Student achievement scores should trouble Georgia parents. According to researchers, students in 30 developed countries outpace Georgia 15-year-olds in math. Among families where at least one parent finished college, students from 31 nations perform better than Georgia students.

In reading, two-thirds of the state’s fourth graders score below the basic level set by the U.S. Department of Education. By eighth grade, nearly 70 percent read below the basic level.

Yet in a poll conducted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution in January 2015, 30 percent of respondents rated Georgia public schools as “excellent” or “good,” while another 38 percent rated them as “fair.” Sixty-eight percent of Georgia schools cannot be doing a fair job or better if almost three-quarters of their students aren’t.

Every child should have access to a school that will challenge him and prepare him for the future. But the labor market is changing quickly. The skills individuals will need to know in order to have a successful career are impossible to predict over the long term.

A recent study by Young Invincibles, a group that researches trends among Millennials, found that the jobs most likely to set Millennials up for success are physician’s assistants, actuaries, statisticians, and biomedical engineers. These careers will require a solid educational background in K-12 and college and even graduate school.

Families can use education savings accounts to save money from year to year, pay for college classes before and during their student’s postsecondary years, and pay for graduate school. This way, students can learn skills before, during, and after college that will help them in their careers.

This feature of the accounts is why families like Perla and Albiery’s can talk about college. And life after college. “I think it has been very good for our family,” Perla says.

Georgia students deserve the same opportunities to find success in school and in life. Education savings accounts can help give this chance to every Georgia child.

Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.