What if there were a way for your high school student to move at his or her own pace; to choose the best courses available anywhere in Utah, whether at another school or online; to choose the best teachers; to acquire credits toward college graduation while in high school; and to graduate early?

And what if this plan would also help pay for college tuition after graduation?

And what if all this could be done for the same amount of money that's currently being spent by the state of Utah educating high school students?


It's called an Education Savings Account. A bill to establish individual accounts for education purposes (HB 123) is being proposed by Rep. John Dougall of Highland. It's an idea whose time has come. It's not so much education reform as it is education enabling. Dougall deserves a medal.

Basically, all that's needed is to treat high school education -- grades 9-12 -- as a marketplace instead of something that happens primarily at a single school. Rather than trap students within the confines of a particular building and limit them to particular local course offerings and teaching staff, it's possible to open the floodgates and allow them to go wherever they like to obtain courses and training that more closely matches their interests and needs. And all for the same money taxpayers now contribute.

HB 123 would establish an Education Savings Account for every high school student in Utah, beginning this year at $6,400 per student. Parents would authorize the money to be spent as they choose for available courses in a broad market that would include universities, technical schools, other high schools and online learning. Such flexibility would be a great boon for Utah's brightest.

Where would the money come from? It's already there, provided today by the state based on a standard funding formula. Currently, the money is captured by each individual high school, and that's where it stays -- in a closed system.

What Dougall's bill envisions is a new model that would unfreeze those dollars so that a high school education could be customized to the needs of individual students -- needs identified by the students themselves and their parents. Rather than providing a lump sum to a particular school for each student, HB 123 would deposit state money into each student's Education Savings Account. High schools would then charge a fee per class, just as colleges do.

A student who wants to take a class at the high school would pay using the education account. But he would no longer be limited to what is offered within the walls of that school unless he wanted to be. If he wants to take a class from a technical college or university, he can, and the education account would be likewise debited.

Education Savings Account money would be applied according to individual needs for classes at any authorized institution or through online programs. Students could progress through high school at their own pace, and could graduate early as soon as they qualify.

Excess dollars in the account could then be rolled over to apply to future education expenses, including college tuition.

HB 123 is an elegant alternative to the outmoded concept of "seat time" at a fixed brick-and-mortar institution. That's an antiquated approach that tends to hold top students back. This bill points the way to a more sensible future that not only serves individual students better but society at large. And it fits the existing statutory and constitutional mission of the public schools.

This is one of those times when a small shift in old-fashioned thinking can result in an immense positive cascade of results. The Legislature needs to get behind this one.