School choice expansion offers new opportunities for teachers

By Colleen Hroncich via The Hill

“Fund students, not systems” has been the rallying cry behind Arizona’s new universal education savings account (ESA) program. The state’s previous ESA, which allows parents to use state education funds for a variety of specific educational expenses, was limited to a small segment of students, but In July, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed legislation opening the program to every K-12 student in Arizona.

While Arizona’s teachers’ unions fought the ESA expansion, it represents a tremendous opportunity for Arizona teachers. Since public schools have a near monopoly in many areas, prospective teachers face limited options. But it’s a whole new world in Arizona now. The ability of parents to choose their children’s educational environment means new options will be needed. Teachers can help fill those needs.

This isn’t a pie in the sky prediction—it’s already happening with current ESA programs. Florida, one of the nation’s leaders in terms of school choice, exemplifies this. Florida’s ESA program has been essential for teachers starting their schools—and especially to being able to enroll economically disadvantaged students.

For example, after 14 years as a public school teacher and academic coach, Angela Kennedy started Deeper Root Academy because she was frustrated by limitations in how she could teach. While she may have been able to start a school without the scholarship programs, she wouldn’t have been able to reach the children who really needed her help.

“I was frustrated with how the system didn’t work for a lot of kids,” said Kennedy at an online panel hosted by the Cato Institute last month. “And it also didn’t work for teachers. It wasn’t really working for me because I felt like a lot of my ability to be creative or give kids options to demonstrate learning to me was not appreciated.”

Recently, 10 Florida teachers-turned-entrepreneurs participated in focus groups to discuss their experiences. There were common themes when it came to what inspired them to leave public schools and start their own schools, including frustrations with the public school system, a desire to create options that worked better for their own children, and a desire to create a better working environment for teachers.

These teacher entrepreneur stories are only the beginning. Arizona is the first state to adopt a universal ESA, which means the possibilities for new learning environments are almost limitless. Classical education, unschooling, microschools, hybrid schools, STEM-focused entities—there is parent demand for all these options and more.

Despite what union leaders and district administrators have said about Arizona’s universal ESA, teachers can be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new program. What they make of this amazing opportunity remains to be seen.

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