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First Teachers — Education Debit Cards

November 14, 2013 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

The biggest obstacle to school voucher programs is the argument that they violate the First Amendment’s “no establishment of religion” clause. Central to the argument is the proposition that vouchers take “public dollars” — raised by taxing people from many different religious backgrounds or with no religious affiliation — and funnel them directly to schools run by a church or some other religious organization. The key, then, for those who seek some form of financial relief for parents who want to remove their children from local public schools and enroll them in a parochial school is breaking this direct link between tax dollars and the parochial school in question.
Arizona may have found a way to do that. Lindsey M. Burke, reporting in the online edition of National Review on October 15, describes the state’s Education Savings Account (ESA) program. How do these ESAs differ from vouchers? According to Burke, “parents who are not satisfied with their child’s assigned public school can withdraw the child from the public system and have 90 percent of what the state would have spent on their child deposited” into a bank savings account, where those funds will be “deposited directly onto a restricted-use debit card, which parents can use to pay for a variety of education-related services and providers.”
At present, those expenses can “include private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services, educational therapy, curricula, and a host of other education expenses.” This results in an effective break between public funds and church-related schools, since parents “can direct their child’s share of education funding to multiple providers and services, instead of using those funds at a single educational institution.”
There is another attractive aspect to the Arizona ESAs, one that may make them attractive to many who oppose vouchers. Writes Burke, “Unused funds can be rolled over from year to year, a policy that encourages parents to consider opportunity costs (are they getting a good bang for their educational buck?) and empowers families to save for future education expenses. Families can even roll unused funds into a college savings account.”
As of now, not all of Arizona’s families with children in school are entitled to use ESAs. When the ESAs were first established in 2011, they were limited to “children with special needs. In 2012 eligibility was expanded to include children from low-income families in underperforming schools, children of active-duty military parents, and children in Arizona’s foster-care system.” Even with these limitations, more than “220,000 children are eligible for an ESA.”
Burke’s hope is that as “more and more states across the country consider ways to provide school-choice options to families,” ESAs will “be at the top of their lists. And states with existing voucher or tuition-tax-credit programs should consider expanding the allowable uses of funds and transforming them to more flexible ESAs.”
One would think that ESAs remove the First Amendment objections raised by opponents of vouchers and tax-credits for parents using private schools. If that is not the case and opposition to ESAs is as rigid as the opposition to vouchers, it will make clear that the opposition is rooted not in constitutional grounds but on a hostility to religiously affiliated schools.
On another topic: the new challenge in trying to control cheating on classroom tests because of the advance in digital technology. Students trying to cheat on their examinations is nothing new. Until recently, students were using the same techniques as the generations that came before them: writing the answers on their hands or on “crib notes,” tapping with their pens on their desks to give a friend a clue to answers, positioning their examination papers on their desks to make them visible to a classmate, and so on.
Julia Lawrence reports on the web site Education News (educationnews.org/technology/technology-brings-new-challenges-to-fight-against-cheating) that “the advent of miniaturized technology” has made “detecting and stopping cheating much harder” than in the past, especially at the secondary school level. A study by Common Sense Media found “that more than 30 percent of students between the ages of 13 and 19 used personal digital devices and the Internet to cheat in their academic work.” The primary tool in the cheating is the smart phone. According to Common Sense Media, “a growing number of schools around the country are taking the approach of banning the devices during exams.” Beyond that, “the state of California has gone so far as to deploy a team from the state education department and the national Educational Testing Service to check social media sites ‘every 15 minutes’ to see if students have snapped pictures of tests and posted them online.” The Los Angeles Times reported that last year 36 questions from standardized exams in the state showed up on social media sties.
But this does not solve the problem. Common Sense Media interviewed a high school junior who asked not to be identified. He said it is routine for teachers to tell their students to put their cell phones in their backpacks before a test, but to not follow up to see if the students had actually complied. Many students keep their cell phones in their laps under the desk, he said. With those cell phones just about any answer to any question can easily be looked up in a matter of seconds.
Computers and the Internet have also made plagiarizing easier than ever before. Writes Lawrence, “Thanks to Google search, which puts the web at anyone’s fingertips, the incidents of plagiarism are on the rise.” It has gotten to the point that many students will compose a research paper by doing nothing more than “cutting and pasting” and printing out passages they have looked up on the Internet. A 20-page research paper can be put together in a matter of minutes in this manner.
It has gotten to the point, Lawrence continues, where “schools are turning to companies like Turnitin, which offers a service that will quickly scan students’ submitted work and highlight instances of suspected plagiarism.” Last year Turnitin “scanned 38 million” research papers “and found in them more than 150 million instances of material being copied from elsewhere.” Wikipedia proved to be the most common source of the plagiarized material.
Jason Chu, senior education manager at Turnitin, is convinced that many modern students think that “writing papers and their version of doing research” is going to a “social sharing site on the Internet.” They think that “research means search.” The problem is that they simply reproduce the information they discover on the Internet, but “don’t know how to interpret it, how to evaluate it, how to make sense of it.”

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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.

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