CAPE ELIZABETH — Before I begin to discuss some of the issues that Isabelle Christie, a Maine Policy Institute intern, raised in her Maine Voices column (July 11), may I just say that the idea of disrupting public education funding at this time is mind boggling. We have enough serious issues to deal with right now without adding something as controversial and complicated as “cost-effective” education savings accounts. Here are some facts on ESAs.

Many versions of education savings accounts are surfacing around the country, but they basically all come under the heading “school choice.” They are the brainchild of Milton Friedman, the conservative University of Chicago economist, who first proposed them in the 1950s. The goal of the “school choice” movement is the privatization of education – having businesses or private nonprofits provide public education.

Nineteen states currently have some form of school choice. Only five have the type of funding that Ms. Christie suggests: a debit card that uses the funds normally allocated to a student and gives the parent the right to choose how to spend it. The funds may be used to pay for private school, a tutor or – with a few restrictions – any expense the parent decides is educational. The possibilities for misuse of taxpayer dollars are endless (and have been well documented in the national media). Another question arises: Who would vet these online tutors? Teachers and aides go through regular background checks and fingerprinting.

Why would parents need education debit cards during the pandemic? For example, there is no need for parents to pay for online schooling. It is already provided free. Maine teachers spent the spring in virtual classes with students – and are spending the summer – honing our online classroom skills. Online teaching and learning have proven to be problematic, but a hybrid of remote learning and small groups of students spending some time with the child’s teacher is our best alternative for now.

And to suggest that parents can find special education services online displays a lack of understanding of the nature of special education. These students need the most intense personal connection to our highly trained teachers, even though it may have to be digital part of the time.

The idea that an education savings account program would increase per-pupil public school funding while decreasing the school’s enrollment must be a mistake. I can’t see how this would work if the school is losing student enrollment (which is the basis for funding) and the state is giving the funds to the parent. What’s more, since ESAs would certainly necessitate a new level of state government to ensure the programs’ integrity, it would seem as if any taxpayer savings would be consumed by another layer of oversight.

Another touted benefit of education debit cards for public schools is that they would alleviate overcrowding by encouraging students to move to private schools. It’s important to note that these types of school choice programs blossomed in the South after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that schools needed to be integrated. Private schools using state funding were the beginning of school choice. The problem is that the choice belongs to the school – the private school gets to say who may attend, leading to race and class segregation. We need to be cognizant of any possible unintended outcomes of this type of funding.

In light of the regular reporting on the waste and fraud in “school choice” funding – such as Staff Writer Colin Woodard’s 2012 “Special Report: The profit motive behind virtual schools in Maine” – does this seem like a good idea? Particularly at this difficult time, let’s help our public schools do the best we can without the further distraction of a questionable new – to Maine – way of funding education.

 


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