Arizona School Choice Idea Spreads

Published March 12, 2014

Crystal Fox of Tempe, Arizona tried to keep her two special-needs children in public schools. Fox believes in public education and giving kids experiences similar to those of other people they’ll meet as adults, she said. But it just wasn’t working for her kids. Her daughter Tia, 11, has severe autism, and her son, Austin, 18, has Asperger’s Syndrome.

Austin wanted to be homeschooled. “I remember [when he was] in eighth grade, thinking, ‘This is the first year he didn’t cry going to school,'” Fox said. “He hated it. He was bullied.”

Austin eventually left public school after 10th grade. Arizona offers education savings accounts (ESAs) to special-needs children like Austin. They allowed him and his mother to find a private school where kids didn’t pick on him.

“Austin was ready to drop out. He couldn’t do it anymore,” Fox said.

Arizona subsequently expanded its ESAs to low-income kids, foster kids, and military kids. This session, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Mississippi considered bills to create ESAs for special-needs children. If the programs are successful, they will probably be expanded to cover more students.

ESA Proposals Bloom
The Missouri proposal would send 90 percent of state education funds for a special-needs child directly to a savings account controlled by his or her parents. The family could use the money for a variety of education expenses, including therapy, tutoring, textbooks, and classes. The specific amount of state funds spent on disabled children varies according to the child’s disabilities.

The Mississippi legislature, meanwhile, ultimately voted down the “Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Act.” The bill would have established education savings accounts (ESAs) for parents of students with special needs. The pilot program would have been limited to 500 children, who could receive $6,000 each.

At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) has submitted The School Choice Education Savings Account Act, which would expand federal college-focused Coverdell education savings accounts to encompass K-12 tuition and expenses.

“Parents should be the key decision-makers on their children’s education,” said Salmon.

Voucher vs. ESA
Research has shown many Arizona parents like Fox use ESAs for multiple education expenses, said Jonathan Butcher, the education director at the Goldwater Institute who authored some of that research.

“A voucher is a coupon that goes from the state to the school, or from the state to a parent who then signs it over to a school,” said Butcher. “With an ESA, a parent gets an account number and a restricted-use debit card, and can make educational purchases based on the uses given to that card.”

James Shuls, an education analyst at the Show-Me Institute, hopes the Missouri program will pass and expand over time. “It is an excellent way to put power back into the hands of the parent. It expands opportunity, while also saving the state and local school district money,” he said. “If the idea is good, and I believe it is, there is no reason we should limit this opportunity to only special needs students.”

Customizing Education
People who support personalizing education, such as teachers, should support ESAs, Shuls said: “I know of no better way to allow for the customization of education so that we can meet the needs of the individual student. “

ESA in hand, the Fox family looked at charter schools, performing-arts schools, prep academies, and Christian schools, although Fox is an atheist.

 “If they can provide an education, really who cares if they’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, ‘Nothing,’ performing arts?” Fox said. “So we didn’t discriminate.”

Austin now attends a Christian school, and in fall 2013 he earned a 4.0 GPA. He also scored well enough on the SAT and ACT to get college scholarships.

“To go from being ready to drop out in 10th grade, and to be able to turn it around this much, has been a shock,” Fox said.

Tia is not eligible for the ESA program because she couldn’t make it through public kindergarten. One year of public school enrollment is mandatory for ESA eligibility. So her mom spends around $10,000 a year for Tia’s education.

“She pretty much wiped out all of our money,” Fox said, chuckling.

Image by Michael Cardus.