Wisconsin Reformers Move Toward A First: Education Savings Accounts For Gifted Kids

Wisconsin Reformers Move Toward a First: Education Savings Accounts for Gifted Kids

As the new legislative session commences in Wisconsin, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking support for a groundbreaking policy: education savings accounts for academically gifted students. This would be the first initiative of its kind in the United States.

Under the proposal, families of students who are identified as academically gifted, either by their school or by achieving top scores on state standardized tests, would receive accounts of up to $1,000. Additionally, these students must be eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Despite existing gifted and talented programs in public schools, students from low-income backgrounds are often overlooked for their abilities. The funds from these education savings accounts could be used for tutoring, additional textbooks, and enriching opportunities.

Introduced in the state Senate by Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling, who also chairs the Joint Committee on Finance and is a prominent advocate for education reform in Wisconsin. The proposal is also supported by Rep. Jason Fields, a Democrat from Milwaukee who is in favor of school choice. External groups, such as the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, have also voiced their support. In a brief issued in December, the institute highlighted the lack of dedicated gifted instructors and limited access to Advanced Placement courses in struggling school districts.

According to Will Flanders, the research director of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, the bill addresses the identification issue of gifted students from low-income and minority backgrounds. In doing so, it eliminates the potential biases that exist in the identification process. Flanders believes that the supplemental services provided through these accounts are crucial for low-income gifted students, who often have limited access to such resources.

Recently, economists have shifted their focus to the high-ability, low-income population. A study conducted in 2015 by researchers Jonathan Wai and Frank Worrell found that only 0.0002 percent of the federal education budget, which amounts to nearly $50 billion, is allocated to gifted education. In most districts, children are selected for gifted programs after being nominated by parents or teachers. However, lower-income students, who often lack support, are frequently neglected.

Economist Raj Chetty from Stanford University refers to these neglected students as "lost Einsteins." In a study on patent applications published in December, Chetty discovered that children from high-income families are ten times more likely to become inventors compared to those from families with below-median income.

Wisconsin’s record in gifted education has been less than stellar. According to a 2015 report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the state received a D grade for its efforts in identifying, tracking, and educating high-ability students. The report also highlighted significant differences between low-income children and their wealthier counterparts in international assessments. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s brief noted that although Hispanics make up almost 10 percent of the student population, they comprise only 6.5 percent of gifted classes.

Scott Peters, an associate professor specializing in gifted education at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, agrees with the low grade given to the state’s efforts. While there are requirements for gifted education services and identification from kindergarten to 12th grade, they are weakly enforced. An investigation in 2011 revealed that the Madison Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district, was not in compliance with gifted education laws. Furthermore, although each Wisconsin district is mandated to have a gifted services coordinator, almost two-thirds of them do not currently have one.

Peters views the proposed legislation as a positive step forward, but opponents argue that education savings accounts are a strategy to implement private school vouchers, which have faced opposition from voters. While vouchers provide state funds for private school tuition, education savings accounts allow parents to use public money freely for educational purposes. Critics believe that this diverts funds from traditional public schools.

In summary, the proposed education savings accounts for gifted students would address the issue of underrecognized, academically gifted students from low-income backgrounds in Wisconsin. While this initiative has received support from lawmakers and external groups, opponents raise concerns about the potential diversion of funds away from public schools.

The Department of Public Instruction in Wisconsin, led by Superintendent Tony Evers, who is a rival of Governor Scott Walker and the current favorite for the Democratic nomination in the upcoming gubernatorial race, already requires free gifted programming for students in public schools. However, Rossmiller argues that the newly proposed accounts will mainly benefit low-income children who are already enrolled in private schools through the state’s voucher system.

He states, "This law won’t necessarily help gifted and talented students in public schools. It seems to be aimed at low-income students who receive vouchers to attend private schools. It would provide an additional incentive for low-income students to attend those schools because they would qualify for gifted and talented programming."

Recently, under the leadership of Walker and his Republican allies in the legislature, the voucher system has undergone a significant expansion. Last year, the eligibility threshold for the statewide voucher program was raised to include families earning up to 220 percent of the federal poverty line, up from 185 percent. Many believe that in the coming years, it will rise even further to 300 percent, similar to voucher initiatives in Milwaukee and Racine. This expansion would change the nature of the program from one that primarily benefits disadvantaged children to one that is enjoyed by the middle class as well.

Rossmiller points out, "If you just remove the requirement that it be provided to low-income students, it becomes a universal program. Voucher proponents often start with a small program and then expand it gradually by dropping income restrictions and expanding the programs. I’ve seen this happen before."

Flanders, who supports both private school vouchers and ESAs (Education Savings Accounts), agrees. He sees this as a positive first step towards implementing ESAs and hopes that in the future, they can be extended to include more of the population and eventually become universal.


  • cameronmarshall

    I'm an educational bloger and teacher. I've been writing for about a year, and I'm currently working on my first book. I'm a self-taught teacher and blogger, and I love helping others learn how to be successful in life.

cameronmarshall Written by:

I'm an educational bloger and teacher. I've been writing for about a year, and I'm currently working on my first book. I'm a self-taught teacher and blogger, and I love helping others learn how to be successful in life.

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