Education savings accounts offer a way to reward high achievers


A few months ago I wrote about the game-changing potential of education savings accounts (ESAs), an education funding proposal that Representative John Dougall (R-Highland) plans to introduce during the 2012 legislative session. As it turns out, Sutherland is not alone in seeing the possibilities for innovation in public education that ESAs create.

One such innovation lies in the opportunity to use ESAs to encourage and reward a student’s personal responsibility and academic excellence. Under Representative Dougall’s proposal, each public school student will receive enough money in a given year to take a set number of classes (up to 32 over four years of high school). But as a practical matter, some high-achieving students like to load up their schedule and take more than the typical number of classes (think of the high school senior enrolled in several AP and concurrent enrollment classes, student government, music/art/drama, and athletics). On its face, Representative Dougall’s ESA proposal might seem to limit this student’s opportunity to “overachieve.”

But, in reality, ESAs can actually encourage and reward such students. If public schools are being funded using individual education savings accounts, then the state or a school district could set aside a pool of money that would be added to the ESAs of students who show, by a combination of high grades and rigorous course enrollment, that they are willing and able to put in the effort it takes to excel academically.

So, for instance, if a high school student in his or her freshman and sophomore years took the most rigorous math courses and got good grades (as shown by math GPA), and had signed up for similarly rigorous math courses for junior year, this student would get a “bonus” amount added to their ESA for that year. These extra funds could then be available for him or her to take extra courses the following year, if so desired. Alternatively, it could be left in the ESA to be used to pay for college expenses.

Note that rewarding academic excellence and personal responsibility in this way does not necessarily equate with punishing poor academic performers. If the pool of money for high achievers is set aside from the beginning, then it will simply be a carrot for those who excel academically. All students would still get the same basic amount of funds each year in their ESAs, but those who earn good grades and choose rigorous class schedules would simply get more as an acknowledgment of their academic performance.

Such innovative, performance-incentivizing opportunities are natural, simple steps in a public education system that funds students and families, rather than schools and systems. It is a reality that makes education savings accounts a funding policy that Utah legislators should strongly consider supporting.

Everyone on both sides of the aisle always says that public education is, first and foremost, “for the children.” ESAs provide an opportunity for policymakers and education officials to show how seriously they mean it.