Two years ago, Christmas came early for Kofi Minor and her daughter, Elisa Thomas.
“She was struggling in school,” says Minor, a resident of the District of Columbia. “When you have a child that is 5 or 6, it is imperative that a school be able to balance academics and nurturing.”
She says she had not found the right mix for Elisa.
Minor’s salary would not cover her monthly bills and tuition at the private school she had found for Elisa. Fortunately, she qualified for D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides K-12 private school scholarships for children from low-income families.
She says she got a phone call in December 2014 saying Elisa was awarded a scholarship, “and the new adventure began.”
“If you can find a sound program, especially in a private school environment that you want to see as a module for success for your child, what a wonderful way to give that to them,” Minor says.
Just in time for Christmas this year, a new proposal from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, would provide schooling options to thousands of students in the District.
This week, Cruz reintroduced a proposal—the Educational Freedom Accounts Act—that would make education savings accounts an option for all D.C. students. Congress broadly oversees the District’s school system, making Cruz’s proposal one of the few ways Washington could try to provide more educational opportunities for American families.
As currently enacted in six states, education savings accounts allow parents of K-12 students to choose a new school for their child or customize his or her education. Elisa’s Opportunity Scholarship provided access to a private school, but the accounts give families more choices than just a school.
With an account, the state deposits a portion of a child’s funds from the state funding formula into a private account that parents use to buy educational products and services for their children. Across Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee, some 12,000 students are using the accounts today. (Nevada’s Legislature has yet to fund the accounts, and eligible North Carolina students can begin applying next year.)
Account holders can use the funds to take online classes, find personal tutors, and pay educational therapists and private school tuition—simultaneously, if they choose. Families can even save unused funds from year to year, helping prepare for college costs.
Under Cruz’s proposal, a portion of a student’s funds from the D.C. education formula would be placed in a student’s account. Similar to the accounts described above, parents would be able to choose multiple learning options for their student under the proposal.
While it’s premature to call the District of Columbia the nation’s leader in terms of student achievement and educational opportunities, things are moving in the right direction. On average, D.C. students lag behind the national average in reading and math, though scores are (generally) trending up.
In terms of educational opportunities, independent public charter schools—public schools that answer to an independent board, not the D.C. Board of Education—are growing. Today, almost half of public school students in the District attend charter schools.
With the Opportunity Scholarship Program providing students from low-income households access to private schools, a burgeoning public charter school sector, and, potentially, education savings accounts for all D.C. students, the District of Columbia’s educational landscape has options for students from all walks of life.
For Minor, her daughter’s education is the gift that keeps giving. “[Elisa’s teacher] encompassed all the things that I value—the amazing balance of discipline and education. Just really invested in my child’s success.
“I think there will be so many other doors open to her because of this academic opportunity,” she says.
Let’s hope Washington makes this the season when these doors are open to all D.C. students.