Last month in the Wisconsin legislature, a bipartisan bill was unveiled to create the nation’s first Education Savings Account program dedicated to the needs of gifted and talented students. By giving families access to new educational opportunities and more control over their children’s education, the ESA bill could yield strong returns for student achievement in the Badger State.
An under-told story in K-12 education is how the U.S. struggles to educate its most gifted and talented students. Thirty of the 56 leading economically developed countries have higher percentages of students scoring at the advanced level than the U.S., according a 2012 analysis of the PISA test. This contributes to the U.S. falling behind its global peers, ranking 40th in math and 24th in reading on the 2015 PISA.
Part of the issue is the “one-sized fits all” mentality in education. Mass education presents a difficult balance for teachers, in that students of varying ability levels are in a single classroom. Teachers must pace lesson plans to accommodate the bulk of students in the classroom while gifted students’ growth is stunted as they cannot move at a faster pace. Federal education law, like No Child Left Behind, exacerbated this disparity, as schools have been incentivized to increase the performance of the lowest performers while receiving little benefit for improving the outcomes of high achievers.
Furthermore, in 12 states, there is no specific funding for gifted education services, and this prevents some kids from realizing their full potential. Education scholar and president emeritus at the Fordham Institute Chester Finn explained how too many schools lack available seats for gifted and talented programs. In New York City, for example, only about 23 percent of students who qualified for gifted and talented services were able to take advantage of them in 2013.
Unfortunately, a lack of gifted and talented programs disproportionately hurts minorities and low-income students. Whatever the cause, there is evidence that African American students are less likely to be assigned to gifted services even if they achieve the same test scores as a non-minority student. A similar story holds true for Hispanic students.
Wisconsin is a microcosm of the U.S.' struggles. According to our research, about 63 percent of public school districts in the Badger State have no teachers assigned to work with gifted and talented children. That number grows to an astonishing 78 percent in rural school districts. In 13 percent of Wisconsin school districts, there were no Advanced Placement exams taken by students.
State Sen. Alberta Darling (a Republican), along with State Reps. Mary Felzkowski and Jason Fields (a Republican and a Democrat, respectively), believe that Education Savings Accounts can fix this problem. Dubbed by some as school choice 2.0, ESAs in other states, such as Arizona, have been successful at giving families access to an account of taxpayer dollars to spend on educational services. Compared to vouchers, ESAs give families even more choice by putting them in total control of their children’s education, permitting mixing and matching of education services from different education providers (a WILL study from last year described ESA programs).
Under the Darling ESA bill introduced in December, 2,000 low-income families with students identified as gifted would have access to an account of $1,000 of state funds to purchase supplemental services for their child. This money could be used for a number of approved services related to “gifted and talented” education, such as tuition, AP exams, college courses, online courses, or hiring a tutor. The ESA would be available to all students at traditional public, public charter, and private schools in the choice program. In short, a student could use the ESA for education programs at a school other than where he or she attends.
There’s a strong belief that the program would be a success. An ESA for gifted students would give more low-income families the opportunity to access services previously unavailable. For example, a qualifying student at a choice school could take an online Mandarin course at a public school in Green Bay. Or a gifted child at a rural public school could use the ESA on Advanced Placement courses not offered at the school.
Most importantly, the ESA will help parents tailor education to the specific needs of their students.
This is, of course, not a silver bullet solution to what ails our education system. And, unfortunately, under the bill, the benefits of an ESA are only realized by gifted students with families within 185 percent of the federal poverty limit. That said, the future of Wisconsin, and the nation, may depend on helping high-achieving students reach their full potential. And this ESA program represents an important step in ensuring that can happen, and could serve as a model for other states around the country to focus on the needs of high-achieving students.
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