Tennessee to Launch Special-Needs Education Savings Account Program

Published October 4, 2016

The Tennessee Department of Education is accepting applications for an education savings account (ESA) program for children with special needs, which is set to go into effect in January 2017.

The Tennessee Individualized Education Account (IEA) program gives parents of eligible K–12 children with disabilities access to an account worth an average of $6,200 per year. “The funding is equal to per-pupil state and local funds for the district where the student resides,” The Tennessean reported.

Parents are free to spend the money on approved public school alternatives, such as private school tuition, education therapy, tutoring, and textbooks. About 2 percent of students statewide are eligible, and there is no cap on the number of students allowed to enroll.

Inspired by the ‘Children Themselves’

State Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) sponsored the IEA bill in 2014. Gresham says legislators were convinced of the bill’s value after hearing how a different ESA program had been successful in another state.

“The inspiration for the bill came from the children themselves, and we went out looking for ways to do this successfully,” Gresham said. “We looked at the McKay [Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities] in Florida and had testimony from a Florida mother. Her experience was most compelling. We knew we were on the right track. We were delighted to reach that kind of consensus after everyone had examined the bill.

“When we looked at the issue, we saw that the quality of our [special-education] offerings was, in some cases, truly outstanding, and some were not,” Gresham said. “We saw, too, that parents and families were suffering with those burdens, and their children’s needs were not being sufficiently met, so this was an opportunity to offer some options to parents and families for their children with special needs.”

Aside from a few tweaks, nothing substantive changed from the original bill, Gresham says.

“I don’t call it a ‘delay,’ but prudent planning, so when we did roll out the program, it was truly ready,” Gresham said. “The [Department of Education] was very, very careful to design the implementation comprehensively. They made a handbook for parents [and] provided training across the state on how to budget and use the system. We’re doing everything that we can to make sure our children are successful.”

‘A Fully Customized Approach’

Lindsay Boyd, policy director at the Beacon Center of Tennessee, says legislators realized a one-size-fits-all form of education doesn’t work.

“Unfortunately, Tennessee has yet to pass a voucher or opportunity scholarship program, but the IEA program came to fruition largely due to an undercurrent of understanding that while every child learns differently, children with special needs have additional hurdles they must overcome that may not be addressed sufficiently in the one-size-fits-all public model,” Boyd said. “Additionally, it became clear that legislators saw the potential within a fully customized approach to education—something that voucher programs lack—and knew that there would be families in their district that the IEA program could positively impact, whereas the running voucher proposals in Tennessee were geographically limited in scope.

“The [IEA] program for children with special needs operates just like a traditional ESA program,” Boyd said. “With an IEA, participating students can fully customize their education by utilizing traditional and nontraditional tools, such as enrolling in public and/or private schooling; working through online academic portals; and hiring educational, occupational, and behavioral therapists that can address each child’s unique circumstances.”

‘Outpouring of Support’

Boyd says early enthusiasm suggests the IEA program will flourish.

“We are excited about the outpouring of support we’ve received from families, members of the special-needs community, and those in the legislature who recognized we weren’t using every opportunity at our fingertips to meet our children’s needs and boldly decided to make a change,” Boyd said. “We’re expecting to see a small stream that expands to a steady influx of children once the program’s benefits become more widely known.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.