Education Savings Accounts Give Mothers Tears of Joy

Published July 12, 2013

Want to make a mother cry with joy? Give her child an education savings account (ESA). Arizona Department of Education officials reportedly have seen tears of joy in parents’ eyes as moms and dads try to express how much the accounts mean to their families.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer just made a lot more moms cry with happiness by signing a bill expanding perhaps the most innovative education program in the world, which deposits 90 percent of an eligible child’s state education dollars in an account parents control. They can use the funds for expenses such as tutoring, private tuition, special education services, books, computers, and online and in-person classes. They can even save remaining funds for college.

One-fifth of Arizona kids—some 200,000 children—are eligible for an ESA this fall. The expansion puts about $3,000 more into the account each year, for an annual total of about $6,000 per child. (Special-needs children get different amounts, often more, depending on their diagnosis.) Arizonans pay $8,000 per student attending public schools, on average. The expansion allows children who would enter kindergarten at a D- or F-rated school to receive an ESA instead. Previously, students had to attend the poorly rated school for a year. The program is also open to foster children, special-needs students, and military dependents.

In Arizona, support for school choice of this startling variety is bipartisan. Democratic state Sen. Barbara McGuire resurrected the bill on the last day of session after it had previously failed by one vote on the Senate floor.

What kind of idea makes mothers cry and Democratic lawmakers heroes of free-market reforms? School choice does that, and the results are clear.

Nine-year-old Jordan Visser has cerebral palsy, and his former school just wasn’t working well for him. His parents learned about ESAs and took one. Jordan has gone from reading barely five words to memorizing 100, and his formerly frequent temper tantrums have subsided. Jordan’s ESA pays for therapeutic horseback riding that helps him with balance and muscle development. It also pays for a private reading tutor his parents love.

Kasey Locke has autism, but the six-year-old initially did just fine at school until her teachers could not use the kind of behavioral therapy her parents wanted because of its research base. The Lockes considered private school but couldn’t afford it. Then ESAs became law in Arizona. “It was almost too good to be true,” says Rebecca, Kasey’s mom. An ESA means Kasey can attend a private school specifically for children with autism, which has been “a huge success” for her, Rebecca says.

Perhaps it just takes a mother or father to know, deep inside, what it means when a child struggles to grow. All children’s needs are not of the same kind or degree as Jordan and Kasey’s. But every child’s needs are equally crucial to her and her family. Parents are the ones who walk the halls with these little people when they wake up sobbing. We’re the ones whose hearts sink when our small ones declare they “hate math” or “can’t read.” That’s why Arizona moms cry, as Katherine Visser did, when they try to explain what it means to see their children smile, dance, and read.

Different schools, like different neighborhoods and doctors, fit different children better. Every child should have the opportunity for an education tailored to his or her needs, not the other way around.