While spring temperatures rise, the ice melts, and the seasons changes, one forecast foreshadows a storm for states.
Coined by education researcher Matthew Ladner, the term “Hurricane Gray” succinctly denotes a tumultuous time in American history. For the first time, an aging populace and their school-aged grandchildren will heavily outnumber the working class that supports an already burdensome social-service system. Public health care and education costs will continue to soar as the population paying for it shrinks. Hurricane Gray is here, and we are ill-equipped to manage it.
The education system’s longstanding habit of relying on outdated structures and teaching methods while devouring funds at a gargantuan rate is unsustainable and failing to lift U.S. students to the level of their international peers.
The Program for International Student Assessment found that American students rank below 27 comparative education systems in mathematics, and 17 percent of 15-year-old students scored below proficiency in reading. Our own National Assessment for Educational Progress scores reflect a great national disparity in achievement, with far too many states’ students scoring below grade level in basic reading and math.
Our mediocrity comes at a high price—the United States spends the most in the world on K-12 education. According to U.S. Census Bureau data released last year, per pupil spending varied widely across the country, with Utah spending $6,206 at the low end, and New York spending more than three times that ($19,522). Nationally, the states average $10,608 in per-pupil spending (which typically doesn’t include capital costs and debt).
A New Reform Trend in Education
To overcome difficult demographics in supporting public services, the education economy needs the promise of higher academic returns on the investment. In his recent report, “Turn and Face the Strain,” Ladner makes a case for education savings accounts (ESAs), scholarships that drive state funds directly into the hands of parents.
Typically linked to debit cards, the accounts require the education products and services parents buy with them to undergo strict approval and accountability processes. Once vendors are approved, they become part of a broad marketplace of choice options: therapy, private tutoring, online courses and postsecondary education savings. ESAs improve upon the school-voucher concept by allowing parents to divvy up their child’s education dollars rather than having to turn them all over to one school or provider.
Successful in Arizona and Florida and forming the base for new education legislation in nearly a dozen states, ESAs show an education environment ready to move outside of the system and create a unique series of education service systems, with parents at the helm.
In a final vote this week, Mississippi legislators are likely to vote in favor of ESAs for disabled students, who graduate the current system at less than 30 percent. The Georgia Senate, led by Gov. Nathan Deal, just passed a new school takeover measure. Statewide ESAs are next up on the reform agenda.
Parent-Designed, Personally Funded Education
As school districts struggle to enact effective, broad based reform, some parents have stopped waiting on the system and are taking an ESA-type approach to their children’s education. Commonly referred to as home schooling, but increasingly social and community-based, parent-designed education is already a thriving academic model.
More than 2 million children are already home educated in the United States, with growth increasing each year. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, these students relieve taxpayers of a projected $24 billion annually in tax-funded education spending.
Not only cost-effective, NHERI lists education customization as the top reason for home education; and the return is high. Home-educated students on average score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized tests. Scores on SATs and ACTs also rank above those of their public-school peers. According to NHERI, these achievements hold regardless of family income or parent education level.
“It has long been proven that homeschoolers have as good and often a better education than other students,” said Yvonne Bunn, director of homeschool support and legislative affairs for the Home Educators Association of Virginia. “Non-certified teaching parents have done an excellent job. Home educated students score higher than any other academic group, public or private school students, on standardized achievement tests, SATs, ACTs, and PSATs, creating lots of interest from colleges and universities who are wooing them with scholarships. The greatest challenge now is working with local school boards and superintendents to maintain our freedom to homeschool. We’re sometimes faced with local policies that go beyond the scope of the law.”
Driving Education Market Growth
Metropolises are seeing increases in home-educated students, and local markets are responding. As ESAs expand across the nation, ESA funds could contribute to this thriving market of purchasable educational services. As parents canvas local and online resources in crafting their child’s education, competition between vendors would, ideally, increase quality and affordability.
Parents who have access to ESA funds have the financial upper-hand, but home educators have built communities and attracted educational service vendors on often limited family budgets.
“Homeschoolers are very innovative—after all, we’re ‘do-it-yourselfers,’” Bunn said. “No matter what the community size, homeschooling families find ways to meet together for academics and art shows, science fairs, plays, park days, team and individual sports, and many other activities.”
Northern Virginia, Richmond, and the Tidewater area of Virginia contain the largest home education populations in the state. Co-ops, where families connect and develop joint learning environments, often curricula-based and co-taught, abound in these areas, but can be found across the state.
Wealthy suburbs surround the nation’s capital, and along with high taxes come an abundance of public and private schools and educational centers and services. A slow-to-reform education state, Virginia lawmakers have failed to push through widespread reform measures and expand charter opportunities, but ESA access for special-needs students is on the legislative table—an admittance that, even in high-achieving traditional public schools, services for disabled students are limited and costly.
‘The Best of Every World’
Fairfax County’s Park Authority offers homeschool science at some county parks, utilizing outdoor classrooms and naturalists as teachers. The premier Metropolitan School of the Arts of northern Virginia offers a newly designed homeschool enrichment program, dividing curricula into dance, theater and music. Spidersmart learning centers offer home-educated students one-on-one instruction. Language Stars, an immensely successful language immersion program, offers an alternative to traditional schools’ foreign language programs. “Home School Days” at Mount Vernon, Smithsonian museums, and the Kennedy Center offer regular daytime discounts for home-educating families.
“Generally, cities provide more dynamic opportunities for homeschoolers because of a larger population,” Bunn said. “They can offer a wider selection of sports activities and academic co-ops.”
Renee Fornshill is director of a Catholic homeschool co-op in Alexandria, Virginia, and has watched the growth of private interest in homeschool clientele. She described the hybrid education that home educators in the area enjoy.
“The richness of this academic setting…it’s the best of every world,” Fornshill said. “My children had speech disabilities, so we used speech therapy at the local public school. We played sports at the beautiful [local] Catholic schools. The Fairfax County park authority and classes are a huge resource. And there are a ton of private businesses that cater just to homeschoolers because they have very slow business days.”
Students in the co-op have access to horseback riding at local stables at a fraction of the full-price cost before 4 p.m. and home educator discounts at the Kennedy Center. Partnerships with local Catholic schools provide organized sports leagues and more traditional classroom opportunities, as well.
“The private industry is waking up to this wealth of people,” Fornshill said. “It’s a beautiful opening of variety in this type of education.”
Opportunities for Families of Every Income
ESAs also have the potential to bring schooling options to families of every income level by eliminating income-level discrimination from the application process.
“Many middle income parents are already homeschooling,” Bunn said. “I’m seeing lots of interest from upper-income parents of preschoolers who are interested in looking at their educational options.”
More people of minorities and diverse ethnic backgrounds are deciding to home educate, as well, as they look to improve their children’s education experience, Bunn said.
Brian D. Ray, a longtime homeschool researcher and former certified teacher in private and public schools, found for NHERI that, while homeschooling is “associated with beneficial learner and societal outcomes…educators do not promote it.”
But parents do, and policy is starting to reflect the quality of parent-designed, uniquely tailored education tracks. ESAs are an opportunity to expand thriving education services and create new markets, offering students personalized education tracks at a fraction of the cost of public school seats. Take that, Hurricane Gray.