“Chicken Coops, Trampolines and Tickets to SeaWorld: What Some Parents are Buying with Education Savings Accounts.” That’s the title of a news story from The 74, cross-posted to the The Guardian, about states like Arizona that are passing laws giving parents money to use for private or homeschooling. The emailed version is titled “ESA Boondoggle.” The charge? “Some find the rules, as one former state chief put it, ‘incredibly permissive.’”
Under the excitable headline is a balanced article. These Arizona parents aren’t just buying books and tutoring with their education accounts; they’re also buying kayaks, skating lessons, and roping lessons. One poor vendor gets the raised-eyebrow treatment: “The sword casting instructor, for example, said he would teach students ‘archaeology, physics, history and metallurgy.’”
I’m not here to debate the usual stuff: Who decides, parents or educators, on the last 1 percent of dollars spent? Who decides what is a reasonable expenditure?
Instead, my contrarian take is four-part:
1. All these scary examples seem good to me. The number one enemy of K–12 is boredom.
2. Public school teachers are already—and appropriately—doing all of these things. (More on that below.) It’s not just parents.
3. Public schools are hit or miss on what they’ll approve. So many teachers have to privately fundraise for their individual pet projects. But they shouldn’t! The stuff that only one teacher wants to do is precisely what will make it a unique experience for the kids.
4. My proposal: Rather than hem in the ESA program, we should create “Teacher Mega-ESAs” for precisely this type of individual teacher spending. A few such teacher choice programs already exist, but they are small. A Boston elementary school teacher has twenty kids at $25,000 per student per year of government spending. Why is her discretionary share of that $500,000 just a few bucks? Why couldn’t she control $10,000 per year (2 percent) to spend directly on her students? Why does a school administrator get to control all 100 percent?
What follows are requests from public school teachers on DonorsChoose. They want all these so-called “bad examples” of parent “boondoggle” spending. Yet I think they’re good ideas! (And yes, you should pick one and donate.) Parents and teachers alike should have the right to spend on discretionary items like these.
Coach Smith, at Noble High School in Oklahoma, wants kayaks:
We would like to start a lesson teaching student how to kayak. Our school has a pond on location along with Lake Thunderbird and Lexington Wildlife Management Area and nearby private ponds. We have access to personal kayaks, but we need more to conduct a lesson that can involve everyone in class…. From my experience, if people do not spend time in the outdoors, they are not concerned with the impacts relating to it.
Did you say trampoline? Mrs. Bustos at Lundy Elementary in Texas needs one:
My little preschool students are super creative, active, and kind. They deserve a variety of outdoor playtime games to keep their big minds engaged and promote creativity throughout outdoor play. A trampoline, sandbox, and sand toys will enhance their current playground equipment by giving them extra choices in their daily outdoor play. They currently have a playground with two slides and it gets pretty crowded when all three classes are outside during recess.
Mr. Pierce, an elementary and preschool teacher at Bokoshe Elementary in Oklahoma, will teach roping. His ask is a couple of junior roping kits from Colorado Saddlery, includes “dummy steer head, rope, gloves, stakes, [and] durable training rope.”
The chicken coops? I found five pages of teachers buying those (plus two different teachers named “Mrs. Coop”). How would you not donate to Mrs. LaCour in Arizona, and her “Chick It Out” project?
My students are Egg-Cellent scholars. They love to do hands-on projects, as well as engage in experiential learning. By far, this Chick It Out project will have these scholars seeing and doing “the why” of learning. These resilient scholars will delight in making connections to the real world by hatching and brooding their own chicks at school.
The SeaWorld trip? Public schools subsidize those types of trips every year, and in high-poverty schools, they sometimes pay the whole way after a nominal fundraising effort. DonorsChoose doesn’t seem to allow in-person trips, but teachers have a backdoor. Mrs. Roberts, for example, at Caloosa Elementary in Florida is seeking matching T-shirts for their school trip to Busch Gardens.
People, come freaking on. Don’t you remember how the field trip was the best day of the school year? When did you all become grinches? Let’s free teachers to do more of that, not less. Way more.
Oh, and the sword-casting guy. Honestly, if I lived nearby, I would take our two kids this weekend for his six-hour session. My kids know zero metal working or woodworking. (Dad, um, is not handy like that.) This is a great use of ESA money, in my opinion.
You be the judge. Here’s the sword guy’s website. Doesn’t that look legit?
If you agree that this seems like a glorious six-hour learning experience compared to the other 1,000 hours per year of school, then join me in not just letting ESAs push the edges a bit in appropriate spending, but also freeing public school educators with new Teacher Mega-ESAs for their professional discretion.
Editor’s note: Mike Goldstein wishes he had set aside way more cash for individual teacher spending when he ran a Boston charter school.