Doctor’s Note: Education Savings Accounts & Virtual Schools

 

Education is the single most important tool that helps an individual seize opportunity and achieve their potential, regardless of where they started. Coupled with ingenuity and determination it is the means of achieving the American Dream. For this reason, I consider education a core function of our government.

In addition to prosperity, data shows that the more educated you are, the healthier you are, the less chronic disease you will have, and the longer you will live. But data also shows where you are born and where you are educated predetermines your opportunity, your income and even your health and lifespan.

The VCU Center on Society and Health produced a report entitled “Health Equity in Richmond, Virginia,” in the spring of 2016. This report takes a look at the overall health of Virginia and Richmond residents, and how health is influenced by so many different factors; education and location most specifically. You can read the full report here. What struck me most about the outcomes from this study was the life expectancy variation in such a close distance. This is a great measure of population health. In Richmond City across census tracts, life expectancy ranges by 20 years from the Westover Hills area to Gilpin Court.

“Health is affected not only by the education and income of individuals and their families but also by the neighborhoods and environment in which they live” (RVA Health Equity Report)

We have to alter these outcomes and give Virginians born in poorer socioeconomic areas a chance to achieve our American Dream. Children learn in diverse ways. Our teachers work hard to be creative and stimulate our children in the classroom. Historically, the structure of our school system has revolved around lecture and group-work learning strategies. For children who absorb material differently, it may be hard to thrive within that framework.

I believe every child is capable of succeeding, even excelling, if we use the teaching techniques most effective for them. To make every tool available I think we have to look at what works best for each child. This is why I support and chose to carry legislation for both Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs (SB1243) and Virtual Schools (SB1240).

SB1243 establishes Parental Education Savings Accounts. With this legislation, ESAs would be made available to families who are at or below 300% of the poverty rate, and to kids with a learning disability as identified by an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An account would be set up and 90% of the state’s share of that child’s education will go into the account. The fund could be used in one of many approved ways. This would give families the choice to change the destiny their zip codes predict, or to find a learning environment where a child with challenges has a better chance of succeeding.

Arizona was the first state to establish an education savings account program. Since its launch in 2011, results have shown that the children who left for alternative school options AND those who stayed in the local school system both prospered. The program we have in mind is modeled after Arizona’s successful Empowerment Savings Account (AESA) program and contains features of similar programs recently passed in Tennessee and Nevada. Fifty-six studies since 1998 have found that parental choice in education has a positive impact on student academic outcomes, public school academic performance, cost reduction, racial de-segregation, and promotion of civic values and practices.

Virtual School (SB1240) would offer full time online education, providing the opportunity to take classes not available at the local school and for a child to move at his or her own pace. The state’s share of the cost for that child would be diverted to the virtual school instead of the local school.

These options give parents and students the chance to look at different ways to stimulate a young mind. This is our goal – to help every child prosper within their ability, to grow into a happy, productive adult.

Of course the challenge is money, as these funds are diverted away from local schools to alternative methods of learning. Are we placing our local public schools in jeopardy? Evidence shows that while these programs can be a little disruptive the outcomes are great, even for the local schools.

We can’t keep educating our kids the same way and expect a different outcome. It’s time we work to provide different outcomes on education, especially for special needs children and low-income families. Our kids’ futures should be determined by them and their determination – not by their zip code.

Virginia Virtual Academy Students, Parents and Teachers visiting for Capitol Day 2017