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NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

How to Make Rick Scott’s Excellent Idea Even Better



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While surveying the newly-elected right-of-center governors, Rick Scott didn’t immediately leap to mind as the most promising. Josh Barro recently profiled a number of the Midwestern governors taking office in 2011, and Rick Snyder of Michigan and Scott Walker of Wisconsin stuck out as the most impressive-sounding. Walker has a particularly good opportunity to change the way government works in his state:

 

The biggest fight is likely to come in Wisconsin, where Governor-Elect Scott Walker (R) campaigned on cuts to public employee compensation. Walker’s proposals include requiring state workers to pay 5 percent of salary toward their pensions — currently, most pay nothing — and requiring them to pay 12 percent of the cost of their health premiums, a bit more than double the current level. Essentially, this would constitute a significant cut in total compensation for public employees.

Of course, he will have a hard time getting unions to agree to those terms. That’s why he has also broached the subject of ending collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin altogether. This move may sound radical, but at least 15 states already prohibit collective bargaining for some public employees. Virginia and North Carolina do not allow it for any.

But it is Rick Scott, the controversial healthcare executive who now serves as the governor of Florida, who has offered what I consider to be the most significant, transformative ideas I’ve ever seen advanced by an actual elected official with any real power. Sean Cavanaugh, who covers the states for Education Week, describes the proposal as follows:

 

The newly elected Republican’s education transition team recently released itsrecommendations for school policy, which are chocked full of far-reaching proposals.

One of them is the creation of “education savings accounts,” a voucher-type system that Scott had spoken about somewhat vaguely in recent weeks. His transition team filled in a few key details. Under their proposal, parents would be allowed to receive funding equal to 85 percent of the “amount the student would have generated in the public school system,” presumably in per-pupil funding, to pay for private school costs, private tutoring, private virtual education, prepaid college plans, and other options.

And the remaining 15 percent? Scott’s team says it would flow back in the public coffers.

“The state will save 15 percent for every public school parent who chooses this option,” his team predicts.

As Cavanaugh goes on to explain, there is reason to believe that the state courts might find this proposal in violation of the Florida constitution, so we’re not out of the woods. But this is an idea that could make a dramatic difference to our moribund educational landscape. There are more details here, but let’s think through this for a bit. Homeschooling parents would suddenly have resources for a variety of instructional materials and to hire educational providers like Kumon to provide supplementary instruction. Kids attending relatively low-cost parochial or independent schools will have additional dollars to college savings, music lessons, and other enrichment programs. And best of all, the state saves money.

Some might fear that affluent parents who would have chosen parochial or independent schools even without the subsidy will now seek public dollars, but I’m not sure this is a particularly pressing concern. The idea is that children would receive 85 percent of the funds they would receive in the public school system. One obvious solution is to embrace something like Robert Reich’s proposal for “progressive vouchers,” which would assign higher amounts of public resources to poor children as opposed to affluent children. Imagine a statewide ESA program in which educational dollars are provided through a statewide formula, not through local funds raised via property taxes, thus enhancing property values in working class neighborhoods with weak schools and dampening them in the state’s richest areas. There would, of course, be resistance to this approach, but it would give even affluent parents much more flexibility than they have under the current system. Or we could place limits on eligibility for ESAs, e.g., parents above income threshold X aren’t eligible. Or we could prevent children from switching in and out of the “public” system by imposing a penalty, not unlike Paul Starr’s alternative to the individual insurance mandate, thus giving parents a big incentive not to send their children to parochial or independent schools without a subsidy. That strikes me as problematic, but it is one potential way to mitigate the moral hazard problem. 

Even without this kind of structural transformation, it’s easy to imagine ESAs doing a great deal of good for the large minority of parents looking for alternatives to conventional public schools. And it’s important to note that the ESAs Scott has in mind are vastly superior to vouchers, which can only be redeemed with one educational providers at a time, namely a school. But as almost all middle class parents know, many of the best educational opportunities are found in various after-school programs, including music lessons, after-school language classes, etc.

The only downside of Scott’s proposal, in my view, is that it doesn’t do enough for parents who send their children to conventional public schools. We need to offer public school parents more choices for supplementary educational services, and that’s where Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks come in. In “Sounding the Alarm,” they offer a more comprehensive vision for ESAs, which they call “education spending accounts”:  

Wisconsin would do well to start exploring a new model at the high school level. It ought to continue insisting that schools provide the 11 core credits, amounting to about 55% of the high school curriculum, but then rewrite the funding formula so that the per pupil allocation currently delivered to school districts is broken into two pieces: 55% to fund “core” mandated instruction and 45% deposited in a virtual Educational Spending Account (ESA) created for each child. Parents would have a choice. They could direct those ESA dollars to their child’s school and simply enroll their child in the usual manner, or they could use them to procure instruction from other state-approved providers.

The beauty of this approach is that it is interestingly severable. Whereas Scott’s ESAs are all-or-nothing — you’re either enrolled in a public school or not — this approach allows children to be half-enrolled in a public school, and otherwise engaged with various virtual schools, brick-and-mortar tutoring programs, and much else. This approach also dramatically increases the size of the potential political constituency for ESAs, which is not a bad thing. 

If Rick Scott follows through on half of his education proposals, he’ll build on Jeb Bush’s impressive education reforms and he’ll maintain Florida’s role as one of the nation’s leading laboratories for innovation in public education. That was a mouthful. But you get my drift. 



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