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Curmudgucation: Another Voucher Angle: Child Safety Accounts

It's one of the less common buttons pushed by reformsters intent on pushing school choice, and it might be one of the most backwards pitches out there.

Child Safety Accounts seem to be particular baby of the Heartland Institute, a thinky tank that leans way right. Their mission: "to discover, develop and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems." They are big advocates for the "What global warming?" school, and believe that the left is using the coronavirus lockdown is "a dress rehearsal for the Green New Deal." These are the guys who put up a billboard linking global warming belief to the Unabomber. They no longer list their sponsors, but Media Bias Fact Check says that Exon-Mobil, Charles Koch, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation were among the money sources in the past.

So, zero surprise that their Center for Education Opportunities advocates heavily for choice in many forms. What might make them stand out is their rather loose interest in facts. Take this scare-sentence from their education pages:

Today about nine of every 10 students attend schools that are owned, operated, and staffed by government employees.

It will come as a big shock and surprise to teachers and administrators to discover that they own the public schools in which they work, and that those schools are not owned by, say, the district itself operating as an arm of the taxpayers and controlled by an elected group of citizens. The fact that Heartland hopes to strike fear by invoking "government" tells you plenty about these guys. Their three big ideas are to get rid of Common Core, more school choice, and removing the Blaine Amendments (aka making it okay to give public tax dollars to religious organizations). Their policy experts come from all the usual organizations-- EdChoice, Cato Institute, Tea Party Patriots, Center for Education Reform.

Like most thinky tanks, Heartland cranks out "policy briefs" and "research reports" and other pieces of writing which are attempts to dress up what are simply impassioned arguments for their preferred ideas. Which is cool-- here at the Curmudgucation Institute I am cranking out policy briefs all the time.

Which brings us to Child Safety Accounts. They floated this "policy brief" in 2018, then spruced it up in November of 2019 (which now just seems like eons ago, doesn't it). Periodically they'll also push an op-ed about it out into the world. There is even a book.

The pitch is simple. A lot of public schools are unsafe. Violent crimes happen there. A lot of students are bullied. To solve the problems of school violence, families should get education savings accounts to get away from such situations.

There are a variety of problems here.

One is the assumption that all of the issues being discussed-- bullying, assault, sexual misconduct, suicide, fights, school shootings, food allergies-- are centered in public schools, and a child need only get out of public schools to escape these problems. That seems unlikely. For example, if a child is being cyber-bullied, changing schools will in all likelihood do absolutely no good. Nor do I imagine that private schools are bully-free zones.

The actual operation of the program seems problematic. Parents can get their CSA account if they have a "reasonable apprehension for their child's safety" based on either the child's experience or data that schools would be required to report. In other words, any parent can get one of these vouchers just by saying they think they need one. That leaves two options-- people entering the program not-entirely-honestly, or some horrifying oversight agency that rules on whether your child is really in a trouble spot.

That fits with the format for CSAs--Heartland proposes a debit card which the parents can then spend on whatever educationy thing they feel they need. This is one of the big problems with ESAs-- exactly who is going to keep an eye on all these parents and make sure the taxpayers' money isn't being spent on cosmetics and clothes? Where's accountability in this scheme?

I also have questions about mobility under the plan. For instance, LGBTQ students are among the more likely students to experience bullying-- but what good with CSAs do them if they live in an area (say, Florida) where private schools have explicit anti-LGBTQ policies?

The authors of the "brief" are Tim Benson and Vicki Alger. Benson joined Heartland as a policy analyst in the Government Relations Department, with responsibilities that appear to include lobbying and cranking out "talking points, news releases and op-ed pieces." He's written a whole string of "Bullying statistics show that [insert state name] need Children Safety Accounts" articles. He's got a BA in History. Alger is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum, an organization offering an alternative to feminism and backed by Koch money; they started out as "Women for Clarence Thomas." The IWF gave Betsy DeVos an award last year. Alger is a school choice advocate who travels about trying to sell education disruption. She's got her own LLC which is "committed to helping your organization translate limited-government free-market principles into effective education policy and practice."

And this is where we get to the backwards part.

First, let me be extra super clear-- every one of the problems that they address in the "brief" is an absolutely real issue. The numbers and "research" they've used is debatable when it comes to the specifics, but I'm not going to make any attempt at all to argue that there aren't real human children suffering real consequences of these real issues.

However, what we have here is the classic reformster argument. Construct a strong compelling portrayal of the problem, and then propose your solution without ever making a connection between the two. Here in this paper the authors dump all the problems facing students into a single bucket (suicide, school shootings, food allergies) with no thoughtful distinctions between them. The "paper" then moves to the solution (in fact, it lays out the solution first) without taking a single moment to consider A) any other possible solutions to the problem or B) explain why CSAs would be the most effective solution available.

This is literally a solution (education savings accounts) in search of a problem. Neither Benson nor Alger offers anything by way of showing the time and effort they've previously invested in trying to solve school bullying and while I can't possibly know their hearts or their entire lived experience, if that includes something relevant to solving these problems, wouldn't this be the time to bring it up. For that matter, a search through the Heartland education experts doesn't show anyone with a background focusing on these issues, or student mental health issues in general. This whole argument appears to have been constructed backwards-- we want to give parents ESAs, so what problem can we say that will solve?

Student suicide is a horrific problem and health care and education professionals have devoted entire lifetimes to searching for solutions. Bullying is a miserable issue, now exacerbated by computer technology, and counseling and education professionals spend lifetimes trying to come up with strategies that work. Fighting, assaults, gang violence-- ditto. School shootings? Yes, I believe a few people have spent some time trying to sort that issue out.

None of that work is reflected here. Nor is there any rigorous evidence-based examination of how the CSAs would solve this menu of problems. The authors just drop all the problems in that bucket and say, "Look, this would totally justify ESA policies. Let's use this." The driving question behind this "paper" is not "How can we best address the problems of school bullying?" It's "Has anyone got any new ideas about how to argue for ESAs?"

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they are just deeply concerned about these things and they've spent so much time looking at school issues through the lens of choice that they can't see it any other way. But for parents struggling to help a child struggling with any of these issues, getting a debit card and a "Good luck searching the free market for a school that will help" seems like not enough. These are serious problems that scream for serious solutions. That does not seem to be what the Heartland Institute is offering here.

If you want to solve school bullying, focus on school bullying (not ESAs). If you want to solve youth suicide, focus on suicide (not ESAs). If you want to end school shootings, focus on school shootings (not ESAs). But it seems a little tacky to co-opt these serious issues as part of a sales pitch for your favored policy.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...