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OPINION

Education savings accounts could help Detroit kids

Benjamin Scafidi

The future is always bright for any family, any neighborhood, any city and any nation when older generations can turn to its youth. Young people have energy and innovative ideas that transform the old into the new.

Sadly, in many cases Detroit’s youth have been getting worse than a third-world education. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 47 percent of adults are functionally illiterate. That means almost half of the city’s adults cannot use basic reading, speaking, writing and computation skills in everyday life situations. Detroit’s education system has failed the current generation and is in danger of failing future ones.

In other words, if the future looks like the present, Detroit’s future looks very bleak.

To tackle this astounding challenge, Gov. Rick Snyder has appointed the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren to make suggestions on how to improve the academically and fiscally bankrupt Detroit Public Schools.

We know the schools are struggling to educate students. Add to that a $170 million deficit and the coalition has its work cut out for it.

With a mountain so high to climb, Snyder, the coalition and community leaders have no choice but to set aside any hesitation to embrace new ideas that have not yet been tried in the state’s largest school district.

They should keep it simple in their search for a solution and embrace a new policy now being considered in several other states — education savings accounts, or ESAs.

ESAs allow families to receive their education dollars in a government-authorized savings account with restricted uses. Parents could use the money for private school tuition, tutoring, educational therapies or any combination of expenses that meets a child’s educational or social service needs. Any leftover money rolls over.

Monies can even be saved to pay for college tuition.

Arizona and Florida already use ESAs for limited groups of students. Delaware, Mississippi, Georgia, Iowa, Montana, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia and others are all considering the proposal as well.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Detroit spends $13,416 in federal, state and local funds to educate each student. Michigan lawmakers could create an ESA that averages $10,000 per child in Detroit, with additional funds given to special needs and low-income pupils.

Any leftover state and local funds above and beyond the $10,000 would remain in Detroit, a windfall to help eliminate its deficit.

With the advent of ESAs, new private schools, tutoring services, and other educational and service practices would open in Detroit to serve the needs of children. And Detroit schools would work smarter to improve so students wouldn’t want to use an ESA to leave their building. Competition works when consumers are allowed to choose what they know is best for their families.

Detroit’s young people, its future, have little chance of obtaining good jobs or changing the dynamics of the city unless they dramatically increase their educational attainment. Reading, writing and basic math skills are essential to survive in our society, and Detroit’s youth and too many adults sadly are lacking.

The definition of insanity would be to embrace the same tried educational reforms that have yielded the same results with no better outcomes for kids.

If Snyder, Detroit city leaders, and the community believe there is still hope for Detroit’s youth, they should embrace ESAs. An added benefit is that ESAs will also help attract new taxpaying families who want a personalized education for their children.

School choice and individualized education through education savings accounts might be just the right remedy to transform a city too many have written off as hopeless.

Benjamin Scafidi is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Milton Friedman and his wife Rose. He is also director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta.