Research & Commentary: Child Safety Accounts Would Offer Lifeline to Thousands of DC Children

Published May 29, 2019

Legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives could improve the lives of thousands of children in the District of Columbia by offering them alternatives to their unsafe schools via Child Safety Accounts (CSA).

Under the proposal, CSAs would be available to all DC students facing a “safety issue” at school after their parents file a request with school administrators. These issues include bullying, sexual misconduct, harassment, abuse, fighting or physical assaults on the student, and concerns over gang activity or drug use at school. Families could also receive a CSA if there is unease over food allergy or other health-related safety issues.

CSAs would allow parents to pay tuition and fees at qualified private schools, as well as for tutoring services, textbooks, transportation costs, and therapy costs to cope with a safety incident.

In DC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report almost one in 10 DC high school students were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property in 2017. Twelve percent of high school students report being bullied on school grounds, 9 percent report being electronically bullied, and more than one in six students report being in a fight on school grounds. More than one in five students report drugs being offered or made available to them at school, one in 10 skipped school during the year because they felt unsafe there, and another 16 percent report attempting suicide. In 2011, the last year data is available, 5.5 percent of DC high school students reported bringing a weapon to school at least once a month out of safety concerns.

Students aren’t the only ones concerned about their safety. A 2018 Phi Delta Kappa survey reveals 34 percent of parents answered they are afraid for their child’s physical safety while they attend school. This number rises to 48 percent for parents earning less than $50,000 per year. More than 40 percent of nonwhite and urban parents also report having these fears.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) permits students to transfer to another public school under ESSA’s Unsafe School Choice Option provision, but only if their current public school meets the state definition of a “persistently dangerous” school. Because states define unsafe schools so narrowly, fewer than 50 American public schools out of nearly 100,000 are labeled “persistently dangerous” each year. DC does allow intradistrict public school transfers, but under limited circumstances. Basically, unless their parents win the lottery for an Opportunity Scholarship voucher, and fewer than 1,700 do, low-income DC children are stuck in a school that may be dangerous for them.

Adding insult to injury, while many DC public schools aren’t keeping their students safe, they’re also failing to adequately educate them as well. Only 21 percent of DC children test “proficient” in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by the time they reach eighth grade. The same holds true for only 20 percent of students in reading. Keep in mind the District spends more than $27,000 per pupil, more than any state and 106 percent higher than the national average. Obviously, DC schools are not getting great bang for the buck.

Copious empirical research on education choice options finds these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. 

Moreover, research shows students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting CSAs improve the mental health of participating students.

In DC itself, research on the Opportunity Scholarship Program by the Institute for Education Sciences shows students making use of the program were 27 percent less likely to be chronically absent after three years. Student satisfaction with their schools also increased 18 percent over this period. These results came at a third of the cost to educate a child than that of a traditional DC public school.

District of Columbia Public Schools is failing to protect the children under its care and is not properly educating them either. This is precisely why the CSA program is needed. Under the status quo, the system only effectively allows wealthier DC families to move their child to a safer school when they feel it is imperative. This privilege should be available to all District families, as every child deserves to have the resources available to allow them to escape an unsafe school environment.

The following documents provide more information on child safety accounts and parental choice in education.

Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

The 123s of School Choice
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2018
This report from the National Center for Education Statistics covers topics such as victimization, teacher injury, bullying and electronic bullying, school conditions, fights, weapons, availability and student use of drugs and alcohol, student perceptions of personal safety at school, and criminal incidents at postsecondary institutions. Indicators of crime and safety are compared across different population subgroups and over time. Data on crimes that occur away from school are offered as a point of comparison, when available.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

2018 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent and Teacher Experiences, Accountability, and School Choice
This annual survey from EdChoice, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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