(By Jonathan Butcher, Goldwater Institute)
If your child doesn’t “fit in” at school, what do you do? Trouble making friends is one thing, but what if your son has a speech delay? Or your daughter has cerebral palsy?
For years, Lisa McCarville tried everything to help her son, Conor. When he was 3, she made sure his public preschool program provided him with speech therapy. After he was diagnosed autistic, she made sure he was placed in a safe classroom—and he was even placed in a class with other students with autism with the hope that the setting would be tailored for his needs.
But, she says, despite all her efforts, “Bullying happens and it is real.” In addition to trouble with peers, Lisa explains that Conor doesn’t have behavior problems, but she says, “It’s complicated to educate a child that is cognitively different.”
When Lisa learned Conor, now 10, was to be placed in a mainstream class, she feared for his safety even more than his education. She explains that teachers would try to make him stand still in line or walk quietly in the hallway, things his active mind prevented him from doing.
The Goldwater Institute has researched and designed policy solutions to give parents like Lisa the freedom to choose a school for their children, helping parents of all kinds of children find the best fit for their children’s needs.
Thanks to our work, parents in Arizona are the first in the nation to have the freedom to take advantage of new opportunities created by the pairing of technology and school choice. Parents are using Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), a unique approach to education that allows families to give their children something unprecedented in our system of one-size-fits-all public schools: the opportunity to customize their child’s school experience so they are challenged and prepared for life.
Similar in design to Health Savings Accounts, ESAsare bank accounts that parents use to purchase educational services or supplies for their children. The Arizona Department of Education deposits the student’s portion of state education funding into his or her account, and parents use a debit card to make purchases with those funds. From private school tuition to textbooks to online classes, parents have a wide variety of options.
Last year, Lisa applied for a savings account, and the new opportunities have changed Conor’s life. She gives him one-on-one instruction, adding free classes from MIT and Harvard to supplement their school day. She has no more worries about whether he is being bullied or neglected.
ESAs were first conceived by the Goldwater Institute in 2005, but it was only after a statewide voucher program was ruled unconstitutional in 2009 that the idea gained traction. The Institute helped pave the way for savings accounts for students with special needs, like Conor, to become law in 2011. Over 125,000 children were eligible in the first year.
Then, in 2012, the Institute proposed expanding the accounts to include students from the state’s failing schools, children of active duty members of the military, and children adopted from the state’s foster system. Gov. Jan Brewer signed the expansion earlier this year. Over 200,000 Arizona students—nearly 1 in 5—are eligible for accounts.
Student participation ballooned from 75 children in September 2011 to 400 students in 2012. Lawmakers in Utah, Iowa and Florida have considered proposals to bring ESAs to their states.
For Lisa and Conor, life has changed, and for the better. Conor is now performing at grade level in math, and Lisa says, “We will stay on the Education Savings Account as long as we can. We are really happy with it.”
The future of education has arrived, and it’s time more families had the freedom of ESAs.
Jonathan Butcher is the director of education policy at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute. His most recent report, “Education Savings Accounts: A Path to Give Every Child an Effective Education that Prepares them for Life”, is available for republishing in your state. Please contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.