Ep. 164: Big Ideas – "Child Safety Accounts" with Vicki Alger - EdChoice

Ep. 164: Big Ideas – “Child Safety Accounts” with Vicki Alger

March 5, 2020

In this episode of our Big Ideas series, Vicki Alger discusses her co-authored book, Child Safety Accounts: Combating Student Bullying and School Violence by Empowering Parents. She goes in-depth on subjects related to student bullying, teacher bullying, sexual misconduct and more.

Listener discretion is advised.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Vicki Alger, a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute, as well as research fellow at the Independent Institute and senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

She is the co-author with Tim Benson and Lenny Gerrit of the book, Child Safety Accounts: Combating Student Bullying and School Violence by Empowering Parents, which is the subject of our conversation today. Vicki, welcome to the podcast.

Vicki Alger: Thank you so much.

Jason Bedrick: Before we get started, I just wanted to warn listeners that we will be dealing with very sensitive topics in this episode, including violence and self-harm. So, listener discretion is advised, especially if you have young children around. But Vicki, let’s start with the obvious question. What are child safety accounts?

Vicki Alger: Well, child safety accounts are simply an education savings account program for parents who feel, for whatever reason, that their child’s school is unsafe for them. And a CSA would empower parents to transfer their children immediately to the safe schools of their choice within or beyond their resident school districts. And this would include public district, charter, and virtual schools, as well as private and parochial schools.

Jason Bedrick: And we should note that Florida already has a version of this called the Hope Scholarships for students that are victims of bullying or abuse.

Vicki Alger: Absolutely. They were the first in the country.

Jason Bedrick: Why provide an exit option though? I mean, some people have criticized these accounts saying, well, instead, let’s just fix the problem in the school, right? We don’t want people leaving the school. Let’s just fix the problem of bullying at the school. So why not just require schools to implement anti-bullying programs?

Vicki Alger: Well, that sounds very appealing, but there’s a reality. We’ve been trying to mandate safe schools for decades. Federal school safety programs date back to the early 1970s and include efforts to reduce violence, drugs, guns and gangs in schools. And over the years, experiments have just run the gamut from no nonsense, zero tolerance policies all the way to the other end of the spectrum of restorative justice and talking circles, a softer approach. So, we’ve really tried everything, spent countless billions, yet we still have these problems. In fact, more recently, Congress enacted what’s called the Unsafe School Choice Option in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Now that’s since been reauthorized in 2015 as the Every Student Succeeds Act. And under the unsafe school choice option, students attending schools that are designated as persistently dangerous as defined by the state are they allowed to transfer to safe public schools typically within the same school district. Parents whose children have become victims of violence at school are also allowed to transfer to a safer school.

But here’s the problem. First, most parents are likely unaware of this unsafe school choice option because it occupies just two lines out of a nearly 700 page federal law. And even for parents who aren’t aware of this option, most can’t use it. And the reason why is because states define persistently dangerous schools so narrowly, and it also has to take years before school can be persistently dangerous. Most parents are still trapped.

Jason Bedrick: So, instead of a top-down solution, you’re proposing a bottom-up solution, right? So the child safety accounts provide an immediate escape hatch to a child who might be going to school and suffering every single day, being tormented by bullies. So, we give that child, through the CSA, an immediate escape hatch, but it also creates, I think, a strong incentive for the schools to adequately address the issue of safety. If a whole bunch of parents are exercising this option or even just a few and they’re taking their money with them, this creates an incentive for the school to figure it out instead of following the advice of some distant bureaucrat to make sure that you are complying with some law. It’s, oh wow, I got to figure out how to fix this problem so parents aren’t taking their kids and leaving and taking their money with them.

Vicki Alger: Absolutely, and you hit on one of the most important points: incentives. Locally-driven incentives. Because as it stands right now, that since the Unsafe School Choice Option was put into effect, less than 50 public schools out of nearly a 100,000 nationwide have ever been deemed persistently dangerous. And like you said, there’s no incentive for safety because parents are stuck and schools have a trapped audience. But here’s the flip side and another element that’s really negative. Mandates like the Unsafe School Choice Option actually introduce a perverse incentive for schools not to take disciplinary actions because they want to avoid that persistently dangerous label.

And then you have schools that do take a no-nonsense approach and work very, very hard to make their schools safe places for children. Well, comparatively, because they do report disciplinary actions taken, they look less safe. So, any way you look at it, the status quo isn’t working, and it actually can make all schools less safe for children.

Jason Bedrick: And we actually, I should note to listeners, we had a podcast with Max Eden about his book that he co-authored with Andrew Pollack, who was the father of Meadow Pollack called, Why Meadow Died, which was about what led up to the school shooting in Parkland a couple years ago. And there, too, there were policies that created perverse incentives that, as you said, actually led to children being much less safe because they took shortcuts. They didn’t report crimes. They didn’t punish children who had committed, in some cases, very, very serious crimes because it would make them look bad. On paper, the school looked great, but those statistics were bunk and they were essentially masking a very unsafe environment that culminated in a shooting.

Now, obviously in most cases, it doesn’t culminate in a shooting, fortunately, but a lot of schools are unsafe in ways that your book identifies that just simply don’t make the papers. And actually I should start with your book opens with a very eye-opening anecdote from Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, about the incredible amount of thought and energy he had to put into keeping himself safe at school, including what he wore, how he wore it, whom he walked with, or sat with, how he responded to other students who looked at him a certain way and so on.

And he concludes, “Every single one of those decisions was totally committed to the mission of keeping violence from being done to my body. That was the entirety of what all those rituals were about. A student in Baltimore city public schools, I would say each day, a third of my brain was dedicated to negotiating violence.”

Now, that seems really extreme. How many children really go to schools where safety is such a prime concern like that?

Vicki Alger: And what’s so heartbreaking is that Mr. Coates isn’t an isolated example. Nor are Baltimore city schools an isolated example either. Now, we have to put this in perspective, and as you mentioned, we’re dealing with a really heartbreaking, tragic subject, but again, for perspective, the data show that statistically schools are safe places. Again, statistically and the data do show that about half of all violent incidents occur in 10 states.

That said, they are not contained to those 10 states. They’re a nationwide phenomenon. What we know from the data is that Mr. Coates’ experience really is being lived out to this day by millions of school children every single day. Nationwide, roughly four out of five public schools report violent criminal incidents each year. So, I hope that brings some perspective and we can get into more of the details as well.

Jason Bedrick: Your book also covers a wide variety of different threats to students’ safety. The first being the one that’s most common, which is bullying, but as you detail, bullying itself takes many different forms. So, perhaps you could walk our listeners through some of the different types of bullying that a student might encounter.

Vicki Alger: Absolutely. Now, let’s start with a quick overview of bullying, because when we talk about bullying, chances are that either we ourselves are bullied in school or we know someone who was, and we have an idea of what bullying was or is. But formal definition for research purposes, actually wasn’t developed until just a few years ago. Now, as you mentioned, Jason, bullying is the most common reported discipline problem among public schools. And so just over five years ago, a multi-agency federal committee finalized a definition, and I think it’s important that we get our terms correct.

The official definition of bullying today is that bullying is any unwanted, aggressive behavior by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or currently dating partners that involve an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times, or it’s highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth, including physical, psychological, social or educational harm. Now, later in the discussion, we’ll touch upon the shortcomings of that definition, but based on that, we know that around 20 percent of middle and high school students report being bullied at school. Now that’s an estimated 6.1 million students, and there are some other important facts we need to keep in mind.

First, bullying isn’t isolated to inner-city schools. In fact, the statistics show that bullying rates are similar in urban and suburban schools, just under 20 percent. They’re actually a little bit higher in rural schools, just over 25 percent. Secondly, bullying is not a onetime event, and these are some statistics that really startled me. Thirty percent of bullied students say they were bullied three to 10 days per school year. Another 20 percent of bullied students say they were bullied more than 10 days per year. And finally, another 4 percent of bullied students say they were bullied two to 10 times every single day.

And here’s the most shocking thing to me is that around half of all these bullied students actually told an adult at school. What’s more, where the bullying occurred, they shouldn’t have had to officially report they’re being bullied because the bullying happened in places where adults should be present, including the classroom, being bullied in a hallway or a stairwell, and being bullied in the school cafeteria. Now, we all know that bullying has tremendous negative effects on the victims. What the research shows is it adversely affects how they feel about themselves, their schoolwork, their relationships with friends and family, and their physical and mental well health.

And what we know is that these negative effects can lead them to skip school, which contributes to higher dropout rates and the negative effects can last into adulthood. And here’s something that most people probably don’t think about. Even if your child isn’t bullied, the fact that bullying goes on negatively affects students who witness it because students report that their learning was hindered. They have a much greater sense of helplessness and diminished feelings of support from their parents or adults at school than students who do not observe bullying behaviors. So, all the way around, it has negative effects on victims and those who are witnesses and those effects are long term.

And as you mentioned, there are various types of bullying. Let’s start with physical bullying because that’s something we’ll think about the most. In recent years, there have been encouraging declines, yet 7 percent of students still report being physically bullied. And most of these statistics are reported as percentages or rates. And what we tried to do in the book is for every percentage point, for every statistic, that’s a child. So, we try and put numbers with that. That 7 percent of those who are physically bullied represents well over 2 million middle and high school students. And what’s important to know is that we don’t have statistics for elementary students because the statistics come from student surveys and younger children are not considered reliable enough to have a credible survey.

So, keep in mind that these numbers are likely higher. Now, when we talk about physical bullying, one of the stories that broke my heart, and if there are children at home or if you are within earshot, I would ask that you might want to scoot them out of the room. I think one of the stories that really just tore me up doing the research was a little boy in Ohio.

His name was Gabriel Taye. I hope I’m pronouncing his name correctly. He attended Carson Elementary School in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the pictures of this little boy are just so darling. He loved to go to school. In fact, he would dress up in a bow tie and a jacket, and he’d bring his little briefcase and he just loved school. He loved his friends. Well, he started getting picked on. And one final incident, he was going into the bathroom and there were some bullies in there, and one of the bullies grabbed him and threw him against a wall so hard he lost consciousness. Now, some adults in the hallway heard the ruckus, went in, and found little Gabriel unconscious, took him to the nurse’s office and he revived.

Well, he went home… nobody called his mom. Well, Gabriel went home that night and he was nauseous and just seemed a little out of it. So, his mother finally took him to the emergency room. He had suffered a serious head injury and he ultimately died from it. [Correction: Gabriel did not pass away due to the head injury. Read more here.] His mother is suing the school district, but there was no good reason for that because this was an isolated incident.

The school should’ve let his mom know right away and had she known, she would have never sent her little boy to the school in the first place. She would have tried to find another option. And so when we think of bullying, parents like Gabriel’s mom, need options now. They shouldn’t have to wait and certainly shouldn’t have their child be killed at school. So, physical bullying is one of the most prevalent things we hear about, but there are other forums.

The second form would be verbal bullying. Again, despite important declines in recent years, more than one out of every three students currently reports being verbally or socially bullied, and that’s an estimated nearly 11 million middle and high school students.

There’s also cyber bullying. Now, this is a more recent form with the rise of social media, email, electronics and such. And again, this is a very recent development and only recently has this been incorporated into the official definition of bullying. And what the Centers for Disease Control found is that 15 percent of high school students reported being electronically bullied. That’s about 2.5 million students and around 11 percent of these students, close to three quarters of a million, likely stayed home from school at least once in the past month because they were just too afraid to go to school.

Now, there’s another form of bullying that just isn’t covered, and that’s teachers bullying students. We would like to think that this wouldn’t even be a category. But a leading drawback of the current bullying definition is that it only applies to bullying that occurs between peers and it excludes abuse perpetrated by adults against children. Now, statistics about teachers bullying students aren’t formally collected, but the anecdotal evidence is compelling that teacher bullying is more common than it should be. Yet, there’s scant empirical research on the subject. That is now starting to change, but a fundamental aspect of bullying is exploitation and the imbalance of power.

What we do know is that the most likely target of teacher bullying are vulnerable students, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities. And here’s what’s especially pernicious. Teacher bullying has a contagion effect because what it signals to students is that it’s OK to bully certain types of students. And these students are typically the ones most at risk. So, all of these statistics and all of these occurrences indicate that we have millions of children who were being bullied in various sorts of ways repeatedly. And it’s negatively affecting victims and their peers alike for years to come.

Jason Bedrick: On the last note about teachers, there’s a surprising number of videos on YouTube about this. It seems that there are students who are fighting back in some sense because a lot of times this was swept under the rug. You could have bullying go on and you’ve got a teacher who’s backed up by a union and an administration versus the word of a student who, in some cases, might be a troublemaker anyway, but now they have I-phones or other versions of smart phones and they can surreptitiously record what’s going on. And sometimes these go viral, they make the news, and then schools have to take action.

Although there have been some cases where they have tried to prosecute the students for illegally wiretapping their teacher. And usually when that hits the news, it doesn’t look particularly good for the school and they end up dropping it. But there have been cases where they’ve tried to go after people who have exposed abuse by teachers through surreptitious recordings, and you’ve got some examples too in your book. Could you give us an example of what does it look like when a teacher is bullying a student?

Vicki Alger: It can take so many different forms because you can have berating a student. There are actually incidents of teachers physically harming students. It can take a wide variety of forms. And as you said, Jason, that students are put in a position where they have to surreptitiously video record, and making that public is very dangerous because normally that involves a lawsuit. And what happens is it puts parents, most parents… It’s hard enough to make ends meet, but then parents have to go and to hire attorneys, unless you’re getting pro bono attorneys. You have to hire attorneys. That’s thousands of dollars just to retain them. And these cases can go on and on and on.

In contrast, the schools have attorneys that are paid for with our tax dollars and this is a way to where parents down, try and redirect the focus away from what’s going on in the classroom. There’s also another aspect of teacher bullying that’s very hard for parents as well as other teachers. Other teachers know this is going on and from what we know it’s not every teacher. It just takes one bad apple in the bunch to really undermine the whole school environment.

They feel as though they can’t speak up because they’re not going to be supported. And they could also be targeted as well. So, for these and other reasons, it’s a very difficult situation. And again, it boils down to are we putting a premium on student safety and safe school environments or not? Because under the status quo, there’s a perverse incentive to make it appear that everything is just fine. Because they don’t want to trigger negative publicity. They don’t want to trigger potentially a persistently dangerous school label. So, the cards are really stacked against parents and teachers who are in unsafe environments.

Jason Bedrick: Now, beyond bullying and actually in some sense of a form of bullying is sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse. So, what sort of statistics do we have on how prevalent that is in schools?

Vicki Alger: You would never want to think that sexual harassment or misconduct or any sort of sexual abuse is going on in school. We’re interesting adults with our children. You know, we’re worried about, for example, children walking to school or playing in the neighborhood, something like that. Rarely do we think that once our children are in school and then attending classroom or playing on the playground, that they would be at risk. But what we’re hearing is that the stories of teachers and administrators engaging in sexual misconduct with minor children are becoming more and more common, particularly in the past two decades.

And one of the things that you have to worry about is just how extensive is this? What do I do if I suspect it? Unfortunately, studies don’t indicate just how pervasive the problem is. Again, we focus on safety with regard to students and other students. What we do know is that a former chief of staff at the Department of Education, Terry Abbott, now leads a firm that tracks news stories of sexual misconduct by teachers, and their estimates are that on average, 15 students across the country are sexually victimized by teachers each week. That is stunning.

And I think we’re just now beginning to see as we have social media and we have independent entities, non-government entities starting to track this, that this is a problem we really have to focus on and we have to be diligent about. If your child comes home from school and doesn’t seem to be behaving like themselves, we need to take a closer look and not wait. Also, there was a recent investigation by the USA Today network that found more than 100 examples of teachers who lost their teaching licenses due to abusive behavior, yet they were still teaching or working with children.

So, we have to be very careful that once abusive teachers have been identified and been found to be abusive, that we don’t engage in what’s been called the dance of the lemons. That we just transfer them to another school. These teachers need to be out of the school system once and for all and never be allowed to be around children.

Jason Bedrick: And of course, teachers can be a problem. And obviously the vast majority of teachers don’t engage in this activity. But unfortunately, there are those who do. There are bad apples in every system, but some systems are better than others at weeding the bad apples out, but other students can be the perpetrators as well. I mean, you’ve got this study that you show from the American Association of University Women in 2011 which showed that for girls, the harassment rate was 56 percent. It was 48 percent of students overall who said that they had been sexually harassed during the previous year. Two percent said that they had been forced to do something sexual. Again, I mean, we’re talking a few million children at least.

Six percent reported being physically intimidated in a sexual way. Eight percent that they had been touched in an unwelcomed sexual way, and then the number for girls on those were even higher for each of those categories. So, certainly a serious problem that schools should be addressing. In some cases though, the safety issue stems from gang activity. You have a whole section on the book on that. What do we know about gang activity?

Vicki Alger: Gang activity has been a concern for decades. What we know is that the percentage of schools reporting gang activity during the school year was 10 percent. That’s actually lower than it has been in previous years. But we do know that the percentage of students, about 9 percent of students, report that gangs were present at their school.

And so that’s an estimated 3 million middle and high school students attend schools where gangs are present. And as you can imagine, even if schools aren’t victimized by those gangs, that’s completely destabilizing and it undermines children’s sense of safety and wellbeing. Now, what we do know, again, even though there’ve been declines, we are seeing that this is a problem, not just in inner city schools.

We know that the prevalence of gangs is lowest in private schools, about 2 percent. Rural schools, it’s about 7 percent. And 8 percent of students report the presence of gangs in suburban schools, and 9 percent at urban schools. So the percentages have gone down, but those percentages are still high enough to be concerning.

And keep in mind, gang prevention programs were one of the first federal programs to go into effect. So, we have been contending with this and spent untold billions of dollars on gang prevention, safe neighborhoods, a whole host of programs. And it’s still affecting millions of children.

Jason Bedrick: Now, you cover a wide variety of different safety issues in schools. Fights, drug use, school arrests. But I want to focus on just a few more that people might not think of. One being food allergies and health related safety issues. So, what do we know about those?

Vicki Alger: That’s something we wouldn’t normally think about. And I think our awareness of the dangers of food allergies to children has really increased in recent years.

What we know from the National Center for Health Statistics is that an estimated 46 percent of children in United States, that works out to be about one out of every 13 children, have some form of a food allergy. The number of children diagnosed with food allergies has increased by about 18 percent. There’s at least one child with a food allergy in almost 90 percent of U.S. schools and 16 percent to 18 percent of these children with food allergies have had a reaction from accidentally ingesting an allergen while at school that could be life threatening.

So, this is something that we are, thankfully, we are putting more attention to. And again, all of these various safety incidents aren’t in a vacuum. So you have children at risk for food allergies, but they’re also at higher risk for being bullied.

So, one third of children with food allergies also report being bullied about their allergies. So, we have a perfect storm of events that could trigger incidents that make children less safe at school. So, we have to be mindful of it. And again, if children are at risk, parents need immediate options to get them to a safer environment for them.

Jason Bedrick: Certainly, and fortunately the majority of these food allergies are not lethal, but in some cases, for like peanut allergies, they can be severe enough that it leads to anaphylaxis and the child can’t breathe. Obviously, if you were a parent that had a child with that allergy and the school did not seem like it was taking it seriously enough and preventing your child from being in an environment where there are peanuts or peanut dust around, you would want that immediate escape hatch because it could be, God forbid, a matter of life and death.

Now, special needs issues have been in the news lately. We’ve seen some major issues in Texas that have made the news. In Illinois, where there was that… I forget which outlet, but there was this whole story about students being put in essentially solitary confinement. In prisons for adults, solitary confinement is one of the worst forms of punishment that they can dole out. These kids were put in rooms that were called, euphemistically, the calm down room or the quiet room or the self-reflection room but was essentially a padded room where the adults locked the door, threw these kids in there.

And some cases they’re yelling, screaming, begging, pleading for any adult to let them out, promising that they’re going to behave better. Wetting themselves, vomiting. And here they are, a 10 year old, a 12 year old in solitary confinement. And there are lots of other issues as well related to the abuse of children with special needs. What do we know about what goes on there?

Vicki Alger: What we know is that any child with special needs is at greater risk for being bullied and singled out just because they’re different. And so that’s been a longstanding pattern, but I think more attention is being paid to this. And again, with the rise of social media and the electronic capabilities, being able to videotape and record and so forth, more of these abuses are coming to light. And what is what’s so frustrating is that in 1975 Congress passed what we now call the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act precisely because children with special needs were being turned away from public schools by the millions. And so public schools are required to give children a free and appropriate education.

And we spend billions on this program every year. Unfortunately, we see abuses like this now. They’re not in every school, and again, we don’t want to sensationalize this, but we spent all these resources so that schools have the money to hire the professionals and meet the special needs of these children. Yet, what research is increasingly shown is that particularly children who our minority children tend to be labeled special needs more often. Schools get extra money for these children. Any children don’t get the extra services. On the contrary, there have been instances reported where children are just basically left to themselves, or worse, they’re abused because behavioral incidents.

So, it’s very important that parents of special needs children are able to work with their children’s schools and the staff at those schools to get the individualized education program for their children that’s going to work. And if children are not responding, a lot of times parents of special needs children realize something’s off.

Because children who have been doing well over the summer, within a few weeks of going to school, they act out or their behavior changes drastically. And that’s an indication that we need to dig deeper and see what’s going on.

Jason Bedrick: And one final issue I wanted to mention, and again, this does not exhaust all of the issues that you cover in your book, but one that was one that I wouldn’t have thought of is bus safety. What types of issues do we have with bus safety?

Vicki Alger: Well, that’s something that we wouldn’t think about. We think of that iconic yellow school bus. We think of happy children going to school and very positive things. Right now, we know that 25 million children ride the bus, yet what we’re hearing is that buses are increasingly overcrowded.

There aren’t enough buses for the number of children who are riding them, and that contributes to… Well, first, fights and kids acting up on the bus, which compromises driving safety. We know that while accidents aren’t statistically prevalent, there have been over 100 school bus related crashes nationwide every year, and that injures up to 12,000 students.

Thankfully, most of those are minor injuries, but 4 percent are very serious injuries. Fatalities are rare, but at least six students a year are killed in school bus related accidents. Now, in spite of these improvements, we know that school bus trips are also getting longer because of school district consolidation. There are fewer schools, so that increases the distance. So, children, including young children, can be on buses for an hour and a half, two hours round trip every day. So, that’s something that also contributes to children’s wellbeing. And again, it’s taking longer, the more crowded, and there have been more fights and incidents.

And you have a bus driver who has to focus on their job of road safety has to be very careful because the bus driver can’t get up and go break up a fight in the back of the bus. So, these are all things we need to think about that seriously impact children’s safety and wellbeing at school.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. And that issue of being left on the bus, there was a video that some father took where his child had been repeatedly left on the bus and the school was not contacting him about it. You know, he would only find out about it after the fact that his kid spent most of the school day at the bus. In one case, they just counted him as being truant, but never contacted the father. You have an example of this in the book where they only found out when their child failed to return home from school and, oh, sorry. Your kid who was strapped in was left on a bus for like eight hours and nobody noticed this.

Vicki Alger: It’s horrifying and it’s a parent’s worst nightmare, that you’re expecting your child to be home. And your child isn’t home. I mean, you know exactly where a parent’s mind goes when that happens. The internet you’re talking about involves an autistic boy attending an elementary… Again, elementary school in Coachella, California, and was just left on the school bus and you can see this video online. Surveillance video showed that he was crying and alone for half an hour before another bus driver in the parking lot just happened upon him.

There was also an eight-year-old boy in Mason, Ohio. He was abandoned on his school bus for an entire school day, an entire day. He had fallen asleep along the way and woke up in the school bus parking lot. And the boy’s mom said her son was crying and trying to get the attention of several adults working nearby, but they ignored them and his mom wasn’t notified that he was absent from class until… it was 2:00 before the little boy was able to pry open the school bus doors and get help. And these are only two of numerous incidents, and you just got to wonder how hard is it to look in that big bus mirror? You can see the children before you get off the bus, just eyeball the bus, make sure everybody’s off.

So, these are things that are eminently avoidable. And if parents experience this, think of the trauma these children have gone through as a result of this. So, they’re not going to be fine the next day, parents need options to avoid these and so many other safety incidents.

Jason Bedrick: Now, your book very helpfully provides model legislation for lawmakers who might be considering sponsoring child safety account legislation. Are there any particular suggestions that you have for policymakers when crafting such legislation?

Vicki Alger: Yes, absolutely. First and foremost, parents and students need immediate options. That’s why we recommend what we call the reasonable apprehension standard. That means if parents have a reasonable apprehension for their child’s safety, they can use a child safety account. Because what we have now as we open the program with is it takes years at a time or child has to be victimized before parents are even eligible to use the unsafe school choice option. No child should have to wait or be victimized. So, for starters, parents and students need immediate options.

The second thing I’d recommend is don’t limit safe school options. That’s something we do now that the only other alternative would be other public schools within a district or in some states to allow out of district, but the problem is with those schools, they tend to be very good schools, very safe schools, and so they are at capacity.

It’s very hard for them to accommodate transfers. So keep every option on the table. And that’s why we include in our child safety accounts model legislation. Parents are allowed to choose another public district, public charter, private, homeschool, online. And again, because this is an education savings account, parents can choose any combination of those options that they think is best for their children.

So, the third thing that we allow, it’s a little bit different, is what’s called a top off. Under existing education savings account programs, children’s parents are allowed to use the state and local funding that their child’s district would get. Well, sometimes that might not be enough to provide for transportation or tutoring or therapies.

So, what we do is we allow, again, a top off. What that means is parents who can afford to chip in a little bit extra to pay for the things their children need, they can deduct that off their taxes. For lower-income parents who can’t afford those extra out of pocket expenses, we recommend a tax-credit scholarship program where private donors can contribute to those parent child safety accounts for their children and receive a tax credit off their state income taxes. So, those are the three things I would recommend. Immediate options, unlimited options and allow parents or private donors to top off the CSA if the funding just isn’t enough for everything children need.

Jason Bedrick: Well, Vicki, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. Our guest today has been Dr. Vicki Alger, policy advisor at the Heartland Institute, as well as research fellow at the Independent Institute and senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the co-author with Tim Benson and Lenny Gerrit of the book, Child Safety Accounts: Combating Student Bullying and School Violence by Empowering Parents. Vicky, thanks again for coming on the podcast.

Vicki Alger: Thanks so much. It was a real pleasure.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas series, please send them to media@edchoice.org. And be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can follow us on social media @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.

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