Education Savings Accounts Turn 5 Years Old

In 2011, Kathy and Cristo Visser lost patience with their school district. The Vissers had recently moved from one part of Arizona to another, and their son, Jordan, had fit in nicely with his classmates in his previous elementary school. “Fitting in” was important to Kathy because Jordan has mild cerebral palsy and had struggled with his motor coordination and vision for all of his young life.

Jordan’s diagnosis was so mild, Kathy says, that up until he entered first grade when the family was able to agree on some additional support with Jordan’s school, he hadn’t “fit in anywhere.” His symptoms were too mild to require full-time assistance, yet he still needed some help during the day to keep up with his classmates. His school was able to accommodate his unique needs. The Vissers hoped to find another good fit for Jordan after they moved.

No such luck.

School leaders in the Vissers’ new district informed them that Jordan was not going to be in a classroom with his peers, and they would place him in a self-contained classroom. Kathy says school officials did not follow his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and “they were lying and cheating him.” The Vissers were unable to negotiate a compromise and felt like they had no choice but to pull Jordan out of school.

Many stories of families with special needs children involved in a dispute with school district officials end with a lawsuit and bitter parents who spend years railing against an unfair public education system.

More than 6 million children with special needs attend public schools in the U.S., approximately 13 percent of all public school students. Three years ago, Chris Borreca, an attorney specializing in special education law, wrote in The Atlantic that the nation’s federal law for children with special needs (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) is one of the “most litigated federal statutes in existence.”

When President George W. Bush reauthorized IDEA in 2004, Nirvi Shah, who covered special education news for Education Week, says the president made notable mention of how litigious IDEA had become. “When schools are so busy trying to deal with unnecessary and costly lawsuits, they have less time to spend with students,” the president said in an IDEA briefing.

Yet instead of suing the district, Kathy and Cristo applied for a new K-12 “education savings account” in Arizona, also called an Empowerment Scholarship Account (Education Next, Winter 2013). In 2011, Arizona became the first state to enact these accounts, which deposit public funds in a private bank account that parents use to buy educational products and services for their children. Seventy-five Arizona students signed up in 2011, mostly students that had lost a private school voucher due to a teachers union lawsuit that overturned Arizona’s voucher law.

At first, the Vissers used Jordan’s account to pay tuition at a private school that specializes in helping children with unique needs, but they eventually brought Jordan home and used his account to customize his education with personal tutors and educational therapists. A 2013 study from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found that approximately one-third of students using an account were taking advantage of the accounts’ flexibility to make multiple choices, like Jordan.

Today, Kathy says Jordan is thriving. “Jordan is making some really exciting academic progress,” Kathy says. “I found a really great online math program, and we are breezing though concepts that have been very hard to teach like multiplication, division, area, perimeter and fractions. We have done all of this in the last 3 months. He’s not proficient yet, but he understands the concepts.”

Meanwhile, some 3,000 students in Arizona and Florida are now using education savings accounts, more than half of them children with special needs. Just this year, two more states enacted a savings account law, including Mississippi, which had struggled for years to help children with unique physical and cognitive needs (Tennessee legislators sent a bill to the governor’s desk two weeks ago).

The last four years have seen a steady increase in the number of savings account laws and children using this flexible learning option. Arizona lawmakers have expanded eligibility for the program to include children from D and F-rated Arizona public schools, adopted children, Native American children living on reservations, and children in active-duty military families. Incoming kindergarten students that meet any of these criteria are also eligible, along with preschool children with disabilities. These broader categories opened the program to 1 in 5 Arizona public school students, approximately 230,000 children across the state.

The Arizona Department of Education reports that students with special needs make up the majority of account holders, but 224 children from failing schools are using an account, along with 98 adopted children, and 43 children from active-duty military families.

Student Type Number of Education Savings Accounts in Arizona
Special Needs 802
Failing schools 224
Adopted 98
Military families 43

Source: Arizona Department of Education e-mail correspondence, March 23, 2015.

Today, education savings accounts are not just an option for students who struggle to fit in. In Arizona, they are available to students from many different walks of life. In September, education savings accounts begin their fifth school year in Arizona, while lawmakers in nearly a dozen states are trying to bring flexible spending accounts to families in their states. In 2015, lawmakers from Georgia, Virginia, Montana, Nevada, Delaware, Rhode Island, Iowa, Missouri, and Utah—along with Mississippi and Tennessee—considered the legislation.

Arizona policymakers continue to refine the rules and regulations governing the program, which is expected because the accounts are relatively new. With so many options for parents and students in addition to private schools, lawmakers have the unenviable task of trying to prevent fraud without frustrating families that want to find a great education for their child.

“We still have some work to do to take the stress out of the process for parents who are trying to follow the guidelines while keeping the system accountable for those who would intentionally misspend,” says Kathy.

For some families, though, resolving accounting challenges is worth the effort.

“Today, my son is doing very well and making more progress than anyone would have believed just a few short years ago,” reports Holland Hines, whose son Elias, was also one of the first to use an account in Arizona. “That’s something that as a parent, you can’t put a price tag on.”

—Jonathan Butcher

Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute.

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