- Special Needs students have different needs than traditional public school students.
- Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are parent-controlled accounts that allow parents to access funds to pay for educational expenses.
- ESAs allow parents to customize education and help propel new education markets.
When Matthew Kenny was 18 months old, doctors diagnosed him with autism and said he had a severe sensory and auditory processing disorder. They recommended he be placed in a maximum-restrictive environment in a traditional school. Matthew’s mother, Jennifer Kenny, a special needs teacher, with a master’s degree and plenty of experience working with autistic and special-needs students, disagreed with the recommendation. Jennifer and her husband believed a more flexible, individualized type of instruction and therapies would be better for Matthew’s development.
Today – after much work and the dedication of countless individuals – Matthew is learning. He has a personal tutor and art and music specialists who help him with his work. His mother uses iPad applications to help alongside the normal curriculum. Matthew is in second grade and making great progress.
Mary and Tom McMillan are the parents of Nick, a special-needs child who enjoyed pre-school and just being around other children. While Mary was happy Nick liked school, she worried he wasn’t learning and progressing developmentally.
Nick’s parents crossed their fingers and hoped the local public school had the staff, resources and environment to address Nick’s needs. It didn’t happen. Nick simply couldn’t handle the stimulation and noise of a normal school environment. He needed a different environment in which to learn so he would one day be ready to enter a traditional classroom.
Fortunately, Mary was able to find a school that treats Nick’s form of autism. She was also able to place him with a one-on-one tutor. These changes have propelled Nick’s development so much that he is now learning to talk and read books.
We can be glad that these stories have happy endings. These stories have happy endings because both families lived in Arizona, where they were able to use an education savings account to meet the individual educational needs of Matthew and Nick.[i]
In 2011 Arizona became the first state in the nation to approve Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Five states have approved ESA programs to date, though only two – Arizona and Florida – have programs up and running.
ESAs in Arizona are funded at 90 percent of the charter school per student funding. For 2015-16 that averaged about $4,775 per student. Students with special needs receive additional funding based the severity of a child’s disability and the services required for treatment. Total value of an ESA — including base and special needs supplemental funding can vary from $10,000 to $26,000; again depending on the severity of the disability and the school district.[ii] Each family’s share of those funds is transferred to a parent-controlled account. Parents can use the money to pay for such things as private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online classes, special therapies and other educational products and services.
Arizona families use a debit card to pay for expenses from an approved list of expenses. Even though parents must be diligent in saving receipts and documenting expenses, the ESA program has proven immensely popular. A 2013 evaluation by the Friedman Foundation – now EdChoice.org – found that “a significant number of families are using their ESA funds to help pay for education services and therapies.” In recent years, the Arizona program has been expanded to include active-duty military families, foster children, children in public schools graded D or F by the state’s accountability system, children living on federal Indian reservations, and incoming kindergarten students who meet eligibility requirements.
While ESAs are great news for parents in Arizona, parents of special needs students in North Carolina are not able to access ESAs.
According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the number of children in North Carolina ages 5-18 classified as special-needs students in 2014-15 was 188,748.[iii]
Special Education Scholarship Grants are available for children with disabilities in North Carolina. The program awards eligible students in kindergarten through twelfth grade up to $8,000 per student ($4,000 per semester) per school year.
Parents are thankful for the program even if it’s very limited in scope. In 2015-16, 787 recipients received an average annual grant of $5,140. (The maximum grant award is $6,000.) Last year the program distributed more than $4 million in awards.[iv]
If the school of a Special Needs Scholarship recipient is registered with the Office of Non-Public Education, it will receive a disbursement on behalf of the student for tuition. However, if the school is not registered with the Office of Non-Public Education, parents are reimbursed for tuition. Parents are also reimbursed for special education, related services and educational technology expenses.
However, that can be an obstacle for families who may not have the money on hand to pay tuition or other expenses up front, especially if they have to wait for a state office to process and approve the reimbursement. This obstacle is overcome with an ESA program.
The 2016-17 state budget added $5.8 million to the Special Needs Scholarship – an increase of 137 percent. The increase brought total funding to $10 million annually. The legislation also increased annual awards to $8,000. The changes are expected to expand the program to approximately 1,250 students.[v]
Despite the changes, the Special Education Scholarship Grant does not begin to address the scope of the program. Just how big is the special needs population? It’s approximately equal to the enrollments of Wake County Public Schools, Durham County Public Schools, and Asheville City Public Schools combined.
Not only is the population large, it is struggling. The cohort graduation rate for special-needs students is 68.9 percent, the lowest percentage of any group or category except those of limited English proficiency (57.1 percent).[vi] And the 2015-16 graduation figure represents a significant improvement over the last decade.
We all know children are different from each other. They have different abilities, talents and needs. Few people know this as well as special-needs parents. Without exception, parents of special-needs students want their child to have an education that best suits their individual needs and abilities. Education Savings Accounts can help special-needs parents and students accomplish those goals.
ESAs allow parents to customize education to fit their child’s educational needs. Since ESAs allow parents to control education spending, they have an incentive to economize – a value that doesn’t exist when ESAs are treated as mere vouchers. Moreover, because ESAs encourage parents to customize curricula, they can also propel education reform and create new education markets.
ESAs empower parents to access opportunities for those whose needs have too often been ill-served by the public schools. Individualized educational opportunities and medical therapies can be transformative in the life of special needs students. Just ask Nick McMillan and Matthew Kenny. ESA programs in Arizona and Florida demonstrate that parents know best how to meet the needs of special needs children. These successes affirm these truths. They also offer compelling reasons why North Carolina legislators should do the same for special needs families in the Tar Heel State.
[i] The names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. The accounts mentioned in this article originally appeared in the Capitol Times of Arizona.
Education Savings Accounts the New Frontier in School Choice, Research Paper American Enterprise Institute. Available online at: https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Finley_education_savings_accounts_conference.pdf
[ii] Emowerment Scholarship Program web site, Arizona Department of Education. Available online at: http://www.azed.gov/esa/frequently-asked-questions/
[iii] Statistical Profile of the Public Schools of North Carolina, Department of Public Instruction. Available online at: http://apps.schools.nc.gov/pls/apex/f?p=1:14:0::NO:::
[iv] Disabilities Grant Program, research report published by the House Select Committee on Education Strategies and Practice, October 18, 2016.Avaialble at: http://www.ncleg.net/documentsites/committees/house2015-175/October%2018,%202016/Kathryn%20Marker_Disabilities%20Grant%20(legislative%20committee%2010%2018).pdf.
[vi] 2016l Cohort Graduation Report, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, September 1, 2016, Available online at: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/accountability/reporting/chrtgrdrt16.pdf