A new Florida program, first of its kind in the nation, allocates 9.7 million dollars towards tutors to support students who need extra help in reading. The reading education savings accounts (ESA)–worth five-hundred dollars each–are available for students in grades three to five. Students scoring below passing on the English Language Florida Standards Assessment are eligible to apply.
Third grade marks an essential point in reading education; third graders who cannot proficiently read are four times as likely to drop out of high school and unlikely to close the gap without additional support. Here in Colorado, only 40% of third-grade students met or exceeded expectations on the Colorado English Language Arts Assessment.
Colorado policy makers should look towards innovative states like Florida who succeeded in improving their reading scores. Florida moved from below the national average in 1996 to number one in the nation in fourth grade reading scores according to demographically adjusted 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress scores by the Urban Institute.
The Florida education savings accounts can be spent towards tutoring services, after-school education programs, and summer education programs that are designed to improve literacy and reading skills. Those holding Florida educator certificates are automatically qualified to provide reading tutoring services and have the opportunity to earn additional income to supplement their salaries. Teachers who tutor ten students could earn up to five-thousand dollars in extra wages.
Education savings accounts for tutoring in critical areas like math or reading could financially empower parents to improve their children’s education and could have benefitted students like me. While growing up in Florida, my parents made sacrifices to ensure I would not be behind after attending one poorly-performing school.
After attending an exceptional elementary school, my parents were hesitant to send me to the neighborhood public middle school that had a lackluster reputation. However, my parents’ options to send me elsewhere seemed non-existent. There was a better public school I could not attend due to Florida zoning regulation, a high-performing charter school with hundreds on the lottery waitlist, and nearby private schools that my parents thought were not necessary. My parents chose to send me to the uninspiring neighborhood school and would later dedicate considerable amounts of time and resources to remedy the effects.
My seventh-grade year was a turbulent one. My performance in math was sub-standard, my grades were lower than what my parents were accustomed to, and my motivation became dismal as it became harder to catch up. I can remember the countless nights sitting at the kitchen table with my parents working on math homework. They were shocked at how little I seemed to know and how I barely progressed since the year started.
About half-way through the year, they decided to pull me out of school and homeschool me for the remainder of the year. My mom quit her job and spent a substantial portion of her time educating me.
Other than Florida’s reading ESA, six states have passed legislation that provides the opportunity for students to customize their K-12 education. Whether students need tutoring in critical areas like math or reading, or if they need to attend a different school, ESAs empower parents to afford costs associated with their children’s education. Due to my parents’ ability to homeschool me and sustain a decreased income, my grades improved. After homeschooling, I went to a private school for the following two years and then moved to a public high school.
My parents were able to pivot when there seemed to be no other public options to avoid one poorly-performing school. Although, depending on different family circumstances, choices like this will not always be available. Florida’s new reading ESA program takes a step forward and enables parents to provide reading programs and tutors for their children.
Florida has also provided private school scholarships to over 680,000 low to middle-income students, special needs students, and students who face bullying and violence. For parents who have to deal with a struggling student, or have situations which require specific tailoring, expanding school choice initiatives empowers parents to take control of their children’s education and escape geographic and financial limitations.
Nicholas Spaunburgh is a research associate for the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.