Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed a bill that would have allowed parents of disabled children to use state funds to customize an education experience suited to their needs.
The bill passed both houses of the legislature in March 2016.
In Virginia, parents currently have access to tax-credit scholarships, vouchers, and a limited charter school environment. House Bill 389 would have allowed parents of a disabled child to apply for a Parental Choice Education Savings Account and receive up to 90 percent of what is used per student in a public school to pay for alternative education methods.
ESAs Are a Growing Trend
The original text of HB 389 would have made all students currently enrolled in public schools eligible for ESAs, but the language was amended to limit it to special-needs students. State Del. Dave LaRock (R-Hamilton), who sponsored HB 389, says the bill was modeled after legislation that has been successful in other states.
“When I first began drafting this legislation about two years ago, Arizona was the only ESA program fully up-and-running, so my bill was mostly based on theirs,” LaRock said. “Since then, Nevada and other states have adopted versions of the ESA concept, and we did try to include some of those ideas in our legislation.”
‘Not Having Their Needs Met’
Chris Freund, vice president of government relations and communications at The Family Foundation, says the ability to customize an education is especially important for families with special needs.
“The families who testified in favor of ESAs during this year’s General Assembly talked about the limited resources at their particular public school,” Freund said. “Some public schools can afford to provide more resources than others, but no program meets the needs of every family and child, particularly when it comes to kids with special needs.”
LaRock says the system isn’t doing enough to meet the needs of families with disabilities.
“Even though I have three very good school divisions in the legislative district I serve, numerous constituents have expressed their continual frustrations with the special-education services provided,” LaRock said. “It seems that it is practically impossible for our public schools to meet the individual needs of all of these students. Even in the best districts and even with federal and state mandates requiring compliance, some of these kids are not having their needs met.
“The unmet need here is huge, and I am certain that individuals and organizations who understand and appreciate the unique challenges special-needs students face will bring free-market principles to bear and supply resources to meet this huge demand,” LaRock said. “That is how ESAs have been effective in other states, and I look forward to unleashing this potential in Virginia.”
LaRock says McAuliffe has regularly sided with special interests over students.
“Ultimately, we need a new governor who is not beholden to the education establishment before ESAs will become law in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” LaRock said. “I am very encouraged that several candidates who are running to replace the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general are enthusiastic supporters of ESAs and other forms of school choice. I am optimistic that by the fall of 2018, we could have much greater education opportunity in Virginia.”
Freund, too, expresses optimism about ESAs.
“The ESA legislation made it further this year than last, and in the legislative process, that’s progress,” Freund said. “In the meantime, should courts issue positive opinions about the constitutionality of ESAs, the support for the proposal should grow.”
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.