Jonathan Butcher

Education savings accounts offer hope for special-needs kids

Posted on June 25, 2011 | Type: Policy Report | Author: Jonathan Butcher
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Six years ago, Andrea Weck-Robertson was a single mother who wanted the best for her daughter. She struggled with her 4-year-old's special needs, including the challenges of autism and cerebral palsy. Andrea's experience with her local school convinced her that her daughter's condition was too severe for the care available.

"She was making absolutely no progress," says Andrea. Andrea found and enrolled in a voucher program to send her daughter to a private school offering specific treatments for autistic students. When a union lawsuit forced an end to the program, she found a scholarship program funded by Arizona businesses to help families pay school tuition. Andrea didn't know that by choosing the right school for her daughter, she would be swept into a whirlwind of legal battles and changes to Arizona law.

Andrea's daughter is Lexie, the namesake of Lexie's Law, a corporate tax-credit program passed in 2009. This program allows businesses to receive a tax credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations, and it was created to rescue children with special needs whose futures were threatened by the state teachers union and the American Civil Liberties Union. These unions sued and shut down Arizona's voucher program as well as a similar program for students in foster care.
 
Lexie's Law allowed Lexie to remain at her school. But the benefits are restricted. There is a limit to the tax credits corporations can receive, and the recent financial downturn has prevented the program from reaching its potential. Fortunately, families of special-needs children have new reason to hope.

Starting July 1, the Arizona Department of Education will screen applications for a new school choice program for special-education students. These education savings accounts will provide families with 90 percent of the funds that would have been used at a public school to teach their special-needs children. Parents can use this money for a variety of educational expenses, including speech or instructional therapy, tutoring, online programs and tuition. An estimated 17,000 Arizona families may be eligible for education savings accounts.

Nationally, school choice programs are filling a void for children whose special needs are often overlooked. Since 1999, Florida has offered a successful program for special-education students. Today, more than 21,000 students attend the school of their choice through the McKay voucher program. National comparisons show fourth-graders in the McKay program are reading at higher levels than the national average for special-needs students. Similar programs exist in Ohio, Georgia, Utah and Oklahoma.

This year, 42 states have introduced legislation to create or expand school voucher and scholarship tax-credit programs. Of the legislation considered by state lawmakers, 27 bills would create or expand programs for students like Lexie.

Arizona's program is unique among these because parents have the freedom to purchase additional services and materials if they choose, and they do not have to use the account for tuition. With the spread of online programs and virtual schools, parents have even more flexibility to find the right educational setting for their child. Families can also use the accounts to save for college. Parents will decide what programs and services are best for their children.

Lexie is now 10 years old, and her mom says she's doing great. "She is thriving," Andrea says. "There are not enough wonderful things I can say about where she is now." Education savings accounts offer the chance for a similar future to thousands of Arizona families with children like Lexie. Parents want the best services for their children, and education savings accounts give them the power to choose.

Jonathan Butcher is director of education policy for the Goldwater Institute.

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