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New tools for new challenges: Updating accountability for ESAs

• ExcelinEd

The Fordham Institute has challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners and policy analysts to face off in a Wonkathon. The topic? Education Savings Accounts.

The select group of education policy wonks will each respond to the following prompt:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

Yesterday, ExcelinEd’s Dr. Matthew Ladner shared his response. Read an excerpt below or head over to the Fordham Institute for the complete post.

New tools for new challenges: Updating accountability for ESAs
By: Matthew Ladner

…Let’s tackle the need for financial accountability, where the clearest need for state action lies. Fortunately, there other policy areas have acted as testing grounds for user-managed account mechanisms under a system of public oversight. What used to be known as the Food Stamps program (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program after ditching the antiquated voucher mechanism) dramatically reduced financial fraud through the adoption of a use-restricted debit card. The debit card technology can employ both vendor and product codes: You can’t use it at Caesar’s Palace because the casino is not an approved vendor, and you can’t purchase poker chips because those are not approved products. Apologies to all you blackjack fans—but trust me, this is very much for the best.

It fell to the Arizona Department of Education to take a bullet for the rest of the country in being the first to administer a K–12 ESA program in 2011. Every purchase by participating parents gets scrutinized and every account audited. If parents make a purchase judged to be outside of allowable uses, the department can have parents reimburse the account. Serious violations can result in expulsion from the program and/or referral for criminal prosecution. The department considers white-listing into the program by parental request and makes rulings based on the statute and administrative guidelines. Arizona’s program administrators use vendor codes to allow service providers into the program. In time, the program will be large enough to use product codes, but until then, purchases are individually approved.

Interestingly, an act of spontaneous order addressed the issue of vendor accountability to parents in Arizona. The first generation of ESA parents there organized their own listserv in order to give and seek advice on service providers and products. Arizona lawmakers originally designed the program for children with special education needs (they have since expanded eligibility to other poorly served student groups, such as those attending D- or F-rated public schools, foster care children, and those living on reservation territories). No state test is going to either reward or hold accountable an occupational therapist in any meaningful way, but this online town hall performs such tasks routinely and quickly…

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