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A Big Win for the Entrepreneurial Educator
As the new Arizona ESA program makes clear, school choice can benefit not just students, but also effective educators who care about improving student outcomes
By Matt Beienburg
Is there room in the U.S. educational system for entrepreneurial teachers?
Traditionally, the teaching profession has not been one to reward innovative, successful educators. The pay system, for instance, has been more about mediocrity than merit: Public education typically uses seniority-based teacher pay scales, and frequently, a teacher knows what her salary will be years down the road, completely independent of her skill or effort as an educator. This system fails to reward teachers who go above and beyond and saps potential from our schools.
But in Arizona, a new historic school choice expansion law may provide an alternative that rewards accomplishment and success—showing that greater educational options can help both students and teachers.
Under groundbreaking legislation that was sponsored by state representative Ben Toma and recently signed into law by Governor Doug Ducey, Arizona’s universal Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program is poised to usher in a new era of student and educator empowerment. The ESA program—initially created a decade ago by the Goldwater Institute, where I work—now offers every family in Arizona the chance to opt their child out of the public school system and receive instead roughly $7,000 per child, per year, to put toward private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, teaching services and more. A child who might be floundering with a public school education can now get the tailored instruction or specialized tools they need to succeed—things that often only the well-off had been able to access.
Add those funds from a few kids together, and the opportunity for ambitious and effective education becomes immense. When America’s teachers unions successfully shut down (and resisted reopening) schools during the pandemic, thousands of families turned to “learning pods” and “microschools”—small educational communities of students where in-person instruction and individualized attention continued to thrive. But absent financial support, these opportunities were generally open only to those with sufficient means. Only families able to pay twice—once via their taxes to subsidize the public school system that their own child didn’t use, and a second time to cover the salary or stipend of a private instructor—could realistically pursue such opportunities. The ESA program, however, has broken down these barriers, and made this model an option for all.
School Choice: Good for Teachers, Too
When we think about the benefits of educational choice, we tend to think primarily of the benefits to students, of course. But Arizona’s ESA program could offer a boon to teachers who want to rise above the one-size-fits-all approach to education.
Look at the current prospects facing a young, highly talented, aspiring public school teacher: After spending years and tens of thousands of dollars on a teacher certification program (repeatedly shown not to improve teacher effectiveness), he or she will embark on a school district salary schedule that almost exclusively rewards longevity rather than quality. But thanks to the ESA program, that same teacher-to-be could instead bypass the years of waiting involved in a seniority-based compensation structure, while also avoiding the mandatory annual “diversity, equity and inclusion”-style professional development credits endemic to district pay scales.
Likewise, skilled professionals in other industries who may have pondered a career change toward teaching—but who look skeptically at the prospect of sinking years into a teacher prep program only to then start over on the bottom rung financially—could find themselves far more willing to turn idle musings into action, alleviating the purported “teacher shortage.”
This is because with ESA funding attached to each of their pupils, any of these current or would-be teachers would have the potential to launch their own schooling service. Like doctors, lawyers or other professionals who can hang their own shingle—rather than working only for a large firm or conglomerate—these entrepreneurial educators could dedicate themselves to their craft, free from bureaucratic overhead, and do so in flexible and responsive ways that meet their students’ needs.
Already, microschool networks are soliciting “guides” to teach kids in small clusters, while homeschool pods and co-ops offer a nontraditional but highly academically enriching environment for kids. And while many families might prefer the feel of a large, typical K-12 campus, entrepreneurial educators could leverage spaces that don’t absorb thousands of dollars of overhead—just as public charter schools for years have sought spaces that typically go unused Monday through Friday, such as at churches.
Indeed, as Juliet Squire of Bellwether Education Partners previously proposed in a report for the American Enterprise Institute’s Conservative Education Reform Network, “state-level leaders [could] establish a process for teachers to apply for a charter and become charter teachers,” which “would give families the opportunity to select not the school their child attends but the individual who guides their child’s learning and development.” This same result may now be attainable via the ESA program.
Consider that currently in Arizona public schools, each class of 20 students generates over $260,000 dollars in total funding for their school, on average. Teacher salaries, meanwhile, average only about $60,000, or less than 25% of that public school spending. Under the ESA program, however, an exceptional and entrepreneurial teacher operating independently could enroll a cohort of 20 pupils—each of whom brings $7,000 a piece in available ESA funds—to directly earn up to $140,000.
Unlike in a bureaucratic school district, that teacher would also be incentivized to keep the auxiliary costs of textbooks and learning materials low—to keep her instructional expenses or the extra out-of-pocket costs to enrolling families at a minimum. Rather than shelling out hundreds of dollars for the latest woke edition of Pearson textbooks or a factually inaccurate repackaging of freely available content by Penguin Random House, for instance, the teacher could select freely available primary source materials and other quality content.
Putting Fear Before Student Outcomes
All of this would, of course, trigger apocalyptic cries of doomsday from the nation’s teachers unions—howling that such opportunities would destroy or degrade the teaching profession. Indeed, union cheerleaders have already lashed out in horror at previous efforts to increase flexibility and broaden access to the teaching profession in states like Arizona and Florida. When the Grand Canyon State recently passed a separate bill allowing teachers to assist in the classroom while they complete their degree, for instance, Salon magazine derisively proclaimed, “We don’t need no education: Now Arizona says teachers don’t require college degrees,” while one leftist Arizona Republic columnist warned: “The idea is to make it look like we have plenty of teachers simply by watering down the requirements for becoming one. Not necessarily to a degree that any old moron will be given an opportunity to tutor your children, but close.”
Ironically, such union apologists seem far more invested in sowing fear and doubt about new student or teacher-oriented solutions than in recognizing the depth of failure pervasive in the status quo. Take, for instance, the outcomes of public school kids and the caliber of teaching standards in safely blue states like Illinois.
As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, hardly a third of the state’s public school students could read at grade level even before the pandemic—with Black and Hispanic students barely cracking 25% proficiency. And the picture gets even worse when looking at specific school systems in the state: In the Decatur public school system, for instance, just 2% of Black third-graders were proficient in reading and only 1% in math as of 2019.
These data points might be jarring enough on their own, but incredibly, as the Journal observes:
In Decatur, 97.3% of teachers were rated “excellent” or “proficient” in 2017, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. In 2018 that number was 99.7%. This year 100% of Chicago teachers were evaluated as excellent or proficient. The students are failing but the teachers are great? That contradiction shows the system is corrupt as well as incompetent.
Indeed, the supposed safeguards of the public school system often assure us on the outside that all is well, while simply reinforcing the rot within. Surely, even the most devout backer of the traditional public school system can see that simply slapping a label of quality on schools or their staff has little bearing on student outcomes. If instead, however, educators were empowered and incentivized to promote their own and their students’ success—rather than submitting to a system that disregards differences in effort or achievement—even the academic depths of Decatur might finally find relief.
Just like public charter schools and private school choice programs across the country that have already offered families in disadvantaged communities a lifeboat, entrepreneurial educators could be freed to provide students an alternative to a failed public school system. By opening their own small “microschools” and accepting payments under an ESA-style system, these teachers could provide more personalized instruction to children while increasing their own earning potential.
In contrast to the rigid, one-size-fits-all salary structures and meaningless teacher certification system of Illinois-style instruction, Arizona’s newly universal ESA program offers a brighter path forward. If, as the winds appear to be blowing, more states follow suit in 2023 to establish similar ESA offerings, teachers and students throughout the country may soon find themselves empowered to succeed.