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No Surprise: Heritage Foundation Sees School Closures as Opportunity to Expand ESAs

March 29, 2020

Heritage Foundation education policy specialist Lindsay Burke wrote an op ed piece for Fox News using the emergency closures of public schools as evidence that states need to expand their use of Education Savings Accounts— a wholly predictable and unsurprising conclusion. What WAS surprising to me was that Michael Horn, one of the advocates of the disruption that online education would create, was very clear-eyed about the practical impact of this emergency implementation:

Michael Horn, distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, writes that “all of a sudden, the competition for online learning isn’t live, in-person classes. Those classes are canceled. Now, the alternative is nothing at all.”

Typically, when there is a flood of new entrants into a market (in this case, families thrown into homeschooling out of necessity), one would expect that enabling technologies (such as online learning) would be able to gain a good share of the business — either as a facilitating service or as a viable or even more desirable alternative.

Yet Horn isn’t so “sure we’re in the typical circumstance where the logic and usual patterns of disruption hold,” particularly if students experience “poorly constructed, hastily built online courses by faculty.”

These reservations are especially applicable to higher education, where professors are now being asked to translate in-class lesson plans — including laboratory exercises — into online instructional experiences.

Horn’s reasoned expectations do not stand in the way of the true believers of Education Savings Accounts, though. Here’s how Ms. Burke connects the dots. She begins with this premise:

Freeing up existing education dollars to be more nimble generally and to follow families to learning options of their choice is good policy anytime, and perhaps a critical policy during a global pandemic.

Then, after acknowledging that this interruption of services might not change the minds of parents regarding the current format of schooling, she concludes that the coronavirus’ impact should “…change the way government officials think about education policy.” How so? Well… it appears that the “good policy anytime” argument works here as well!

Students who were already learning online, homeschooling, or accessing private tutors are likely experiencing less disruption in their education. Freeing up existing education dollars to be more nimble generally and to follow families to learning options of their choice is good policy anytime, and perhaps critical policy during a pandemic.

And… here’s added benefit! It’s less costly!

To that end, states should provide emergency educations savings accounts (ESAs) to families for the remainder of the academic year. States should deposit into these parent-controlled accounts 90 percent of what the states would have spent on their children in the public school system from the time public classrooms were shut through the end of the school year.

Families should then be allowed to use their ESA to pay for private tutors, online tutors, special education services and therapists, online courses and curricula.

So, if Mr. Burke’s idea caught on, States could cut 10% of their spending for the balance of the year and parents would froths point forward get 90% of the funds their state spends on average to, presumably, go to the school of their choice.

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