A number of states have begun offering parents of school-aged children scholarships that they can use to improve their child’s education as they see fit. Utah is now one of those states. Jon England, an Education Policy Analyst with the Libertas Institute in Utah, is trying to help businesses, nonprofits and families launch different educational options to meet what he thinks will be a growing market. My colleague Molly Macek speaks with him about it for the Overton Window podcast.
Lawmakers approved the Utah Fits All education savings account, which gives parents money to use to educate their kids as they as fit. “We were a little disappointed to be the second one this year. We wanted to be the first one. But Iowa started their legislative session sooner than we did,” England says.
Expansion of the subsidy gives parents more resources, and institutions may try new things to find what works for parents. “Something I think is really exciting is unbundled education,” England says. “They’re going to a private school for math or language arts classes, then going to get private tutors for music classes, or maybe they join a ninja class, like my son did, for their physical education credits.”
However, the program that legislators approved doesn’t have enough funding to cover every school-aged student in Utah yet. England is working on this. “We find friendly legislators who are interested in this topic. We help them with a lot of the research. That’s the job of a think tank,” England says.
He also works on the grassroots level with the Utah Education Fits All group. “They’re working with parents and trying to help them talk to their legislators who would be interested in this and show a need for the expansion,” England says. “Legislators don’t want to expand something that’s not being used. They want to expand something that is successful and build on that success.”
In addition to lobbying and developing grassroots support on the issue, England is also trying to get more schools and businesses to develop services to offer parents. “We’re trying to help parents be aware of the choices that they have, and we’re also trying to help innovators create new choices,” he says.
“We are just organizing an education innovators association,” England says. “It’s not officially organized yet, but that’s something that we’re working on and something we’re trying to do that we can expand and then maybe help ship to other states as it goes.”
The idea being that education doesn’t have to be in school buildings anymore. When parents have resources under their control, they can figure out many different educational options. And England wants potential providers to work together.
“I’m a former public elementary teacher and principal,” England says. “I used to think of myself as an innovative teacher, but I realized I was walking around with blinders on. I got out and I started looking around when I started working with Libertas. I realized that there are some amazing models out there.”
He’s partaking of this personally. He says that his children go to school three days a week, with the fourth day being devoted to reading. Other providers and schools offer different services. There’s another school in Utah that offers two-day-a-week instruction in science and history, with parents providing instruction in other subjects at home. There’s another company devoted to offering a co-learning space, like the coworking spaces some startups are offering. Another school specializes in providing education to students with autism and attention deficit disorder.
The groups trying different things need to work together in public policy because rules and regulations can quash their efforts before they even begin.
“One of the biggest barriers that they run into, at least in local government, comes down to zoning and occupancy rules,” England says. Cities classify the businesses that offer educational services as schools and subject many of them to the same rules as schools and preschools. So he’s working to loosen those requirements and allow for different models to operate without having to get approval from city officials.
Working to coordinate groups that offer new education models also helps gather stories about the people affected by school choice policies. These can help crystallize the issue, which helps persuade both people and politicians. “You need to find the stories. Stories are what drive any legislation. You have to find those stories of families who need school choice, the ones who have successfully chosen something different, and be able to share those,” England says.
“We have to change hearts to move the Overton Window, then we can change people’s minds, and then we can change the laws to match what everybody expects to happen.”
He says that it feels good to be fighting for better options for parents. “I became a principal because I thought I could help more students. And now I’m working with Libertas because I realized that allowing parents to choose is what’s going to help students learn the best.”
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