For Wade and Melanie Harris, every day is a busy day. The couple has four biological children, five adopted children, and at the time of our interview, one foster child.
Melanie says, “It requires an awful lot.” She explains that some of their children have special needs, and “all of them are different and have different needs.” When the Harrises learned about Arizona’s education savings accounts (also called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts), Melanie said, “I’m just so excited about this opportunity…this will allow us to provide the best for our kids.”
With the accounts, the state deposits a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula into a private account that parents use to buy educational products and services for their child. In Arizona, families can pay for online classes, hire a personal tutor, and find educational therapy services that meet their children’s unique needs, to name a few possible uses.
Lawmakers in five other states have enacted accounts based on Arizona’s example, the most recent being policymakers in North Carolina, who passed a new law in July. Some 12,000 children are using the accounts across Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
Research demonstrates that parents are satisfied with their accounts: 71 percent of Arizona families using an account reported being “very satisfied,” and no parents reported any level of dissatisfaction. In Mississippi, 63 percent of participants were “very satisfied” and 28 percent were “somewhat satisfied.”
Meanwhile, studies also show that families are using the accounts for multiple learning opportunities simultaneously—a feature that distinguishes the accounts from other parental options in education. One-third of families are combining services like education therapy and private school tuition, for example. This allows parents to tailor their child’s educational experience to help give him or her the best chance at success.
Despite these positive outcomes, Arizona’s teacher union and school board association are supporting an initiative to repeal a law passed earlier this year that gives more families learning opportunities with the accounts. Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation in April to allow every child in Arizona the option to apply for an account by 2021. Yet these groups are blocking parents from having more options, even if a traditional school is not meeting a child’s needs.
Children across Arizona have different needs and can benefit from a customized learning experience. For example, Native American students in Arizona have the same high school graduation rate as children with special needs (66 percent) while the same figure for Asian students is 21 percentage points higher (87 percent). Education savings accounts can give hope to students on both ends of the achievement spectrum—providing extra help and tutoring for the former and helping to pay for AP classes or early college classes for the latter.
Arizona’s accounts return the focus of learning back to children and their families and away from tax increases and public school administration. As it should be.