A few weeks ago, Wired magazine editor Joe Pugliese told readers a story that should sound familiar to anyone who followed the careers of computer icons Bill Gates and Steve Jobs: Pugliese almost didn’t finish college because life outside the classroom was more interesting.
“By the time I was 20 I had found full-time work as a designer, and I was serially ditching class in favor of time at the office,” Pugliese wrote in the September issue. “Prerequisites and lecture halls seemed like a distraction from the place where I knew I was learning the most—the real word.”

Today, students across the globe can learn in more ways than we can count, from books to YouTube videos to free online classes hosted by Harvard and MIT to computers installed on the sidewalk (even Wired magazine has partnered with the University of Southern California to create a graduate program). To better prepare every child for a successful future, parents, lawmakers, and educators need a new definition for what it means to learn. And one classroom might not be enough for a student.

Had Pugliese’s teachers recognized he was bored, clearly they would have tried to make their lessons more useful for the “real world.” No educator wants his students to be unprepared for life. Horace Mann inscribed the mission of generations of educators when he called education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men,” a phrase U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would repeat some 150 years later.

Yet how can education fulfill this noble treatise if schools can’t keep students in the classroom, or the very least, interested in the classroom?

Today, public education’s challenge is not just to limit the number of students dropping out of school, though that is critical. The percentage of students dropping out has been nearly cut in half since 1990, from 12 percent to 7 percent.

The implications of this decrease are profound. For example, black men of working-age (20 to 34) without a high school diploma are more likely to be in prison than employed, according to Pew research. A diploma may have far-reaching effects for these men.

But just attending school or even finishing high school isn’t enough. Students need to be challenged and inspired by learning experiences that meet their needs so that they can have a chance at the American Dream.

Education savings accounts provide parents and their children with the flexibility to choose from multiple learning options at the same time. As this blog has explained, education savings accounts, now law in five states, are bank accounts complete with debit cards that allow families to buy educational products and services for their children.

In Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada, eligible families have more educational options than just their child’s assigned public school. The state deposits funding in each account, and families can pay for personal tutors, textbooks and curricular materials like science kits, online classes, private school tuition, and college classes. Families can even save money from year to year.

In Arizona, the Howard family uses Nathan’s account to pay for tutoring services and private school tuition. The Visser family educates Jordan at home, swiping his education savings account card with different vendors in order to combine therapy services and educational instruction. The McMurray family uses the accounts to participate in extracurricular activities offered by a public school. Research finds that more than one-third of accountholders use their education savings account for multiple learning options.

This is the future of learning. For some students, it may just be a new school. Or a tutor to help them keep up with their classmates. For others, it could mean enrolling in classes offered on the other side of the world or using an iPad—with a data plan—to learn math with an app.

Education savings accounts allow for one or all of these options. Every Georgia child should have access to the future of learning.

Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.