Faced with public education’s failure to adapt to Covid-19, parents who can afford it are pooling their resources and hiring private tutors to lead home-based “pod” schools. Dreading the prospect of a mass exodus of families from traditional public schools, progressive pundits are condemning these parents for pioneering “the latest in school segregation.” But education policy makers truly committed to “equity” should look past the current crisis for ways to serve students better within the traditional public-school system.
More than half of Idaho’s high-school seniors are enrolled in college—many remotely—thanks to its four-year-old “Advanced Opportunities” program. When Idaho students reach seventh grade, the state provides them with $4,125 that they can use to customize their high-school education. Depending on their career and educational goals, students can use the money to earn college credit by taking courses that are taught online, on campus, or by high-school teachers in partnership with professors. They can also use the funds to pay for Advanced Placement exams, professional certification tests, and, as of this school year, workforce development and apprenticeship courses.
The past 25 years of education reform has been defined by top-down initiatives intended to close the achievement gap. But Idaho state Sen. Steven Thayn had a different vision when he started the program that would eventually become Advanced Opportunities. A former high-school teacher and dairy farmer who splits time between writing laws and baling hay, Mr. Thayn wanted to fix “public education’s fundamental flaw”—the idea that “the state could educate students without the help of parents.”
At first, Mr. Thayn spearheaded initiatives intended to allow students to finish high school faster, earn college scholarships for early graduation, and receive partial reimbursement for the expense of enrolling in college-level courses. These programs, while successful, were a major bureaucratic headache to administer, requiring high-school guidance counselors to act essentially as accountants. So, Tina Polishchuk, an official at the Idaho Education Department, came to Mr. Thayn with an idea: Rather than reimburse students and schools, why not give the money directly to students and their parents and let them decide how best to spend it?
The idea fit with Mr. Thayn’s philosophy, so he sponsored a bill creating the Advanced Opportunities program. Within a few months, then-Gov. Butch Otter signed it into law. In 2016, the program’s first year, the state provided funding for 16,265 dual-credit courses. Last year, Advanced Opportunities enabled students to take 71,157 courses and earn 215,815 college credits, providing the state’s brightest students a strong incentive to stay in the state for college, where all their credits will be recognized.
“The kids feel like it’s their money,” Mr. Thayn explained. “It’s not a state program they have to access. It’s theirs. That’s a huge psychological difference.”
School districts are essentially monopoly providers and, absent outside competition, there isn’t a strong incentive for them to meet the preferences of parents and students. But Advanced Opportunities provides that incentive by offering students the purchasing power to shape their academic careers.
Idaho students evidently had a greater appetite for advanced course work than their high schools had realized. Dual-credit enrollment has grown more than fourfold since 2016. Supply keeps pace with demand because everyone in the state’s education food chain has a stake in making the program work. Postsecondary institutions join with high-school teachers for an enrollment and tuition boost. Teachers earn stipends from joining with community colleges to provide college-level instruction. Superintendents around the state have encouraged the program’s growth knowing that parents have come to expect robust dual-credit offerings.
Advanced Opportunities has also proved a boon to students in rural schools, who frequently don’t have access to more-advanced courses. Rural students can tap their Advanced Opportunities funds to take courses through the Idaho Digital Learning Alliance, a state-sponsored virtual learning platform. Through Advanced Opportunities and IDLA any student in the state can study any subject from home or at school during designated periods.
During the pandemic, according to Kristin Binder, IDLA’s student services manager, more than 90% of Advanced Opportunities students have continued their online courses without disruption. And because dual-credit courses taught in person were aligned to curricula and tests from postsecondary institutions, colleges were ready to accommodate the virtual learning “and really seamlessly adjusted to an online world,” according to Brock Astle, who currently coordinates Advanced Opportunities at the Idaho Education Department.
The program has hit some stumbling blocks. In addition to the unexpected financial burden, it has been criticized by the Idaho Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with Boise State University, for primarily benefiting students who were already college-bound. In response, the Legislature last year expanded the program to provide funding for apprenticeship and workforce development courses. Mr. Thayn and his colleagues hope that in the future Idaho will have a Swiss-style education system in which high-school students can opt in to a college track or train to acquire a specialized skill that the market demands.
Amid a postpandemic budget crunch, state leaders might be disinclined to contemplate new educational expenditures. But the long-run health of American public education may depend on whether public schools can pull motivated students back from their learning pods into the public system. Governors truly interested in finding ways to “build back better” schools should look to Idaho for inspiration.
Mr. Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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