‘The public-school system has no ability to handle Shawn’s sensory needs,” says Jennifer Doucet, mother of the Arizona fourth-grader. “We needed a program that understood him, that [we] could gear toward his needs, instead of him having to fit into someone else’s box.”
So the Doucet family enrolled Shawn in Pieceful Solutions, a private school in Chandler, Ariz., with a mission of providing personalized education for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. It’s the longest-running school in Arizona designed specifically to meet the needs of students with autism.
Shawn’s mom says the teachers at Pieceful Solutions understand autism; they “know the difference between when he is acting out and he really does not understand something.”
Jennifer also says enrollment at the school would not have been possible without Arizona’s innovative education savings account (ESA) option. “The ESA is the only reason we have been able to stay at [Pieceful Solutions]. Without a savings account, we would not be able to afford the care that Shawn needs.”
Arizona enacted first-in-the-nation education savings accounts in 2011. It expanded the option a year later, and again in 2013.
So how exactly does the option work, and how are ESAs different from vouchers? In Arizona (the only state currently offering ESAs), parents who are not satisfied with their child’s assigned public school can withdraw the child from the public system and have 90 percent of what the state would have spent on their child deposited into an education savings account. Those funds are deposited directly onto a restricted-use debit card, which parents can use to pay for a variety of education-related services and providers.
Approved expenses include private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services, educational therapy, curricula, and a host of other education expenses. And that is what makes ESAs unique — a refinement of Milton Friedman’s original concept of school vouchers. Parents can direct their child’s share of education funding to multiple providers and services, instead of using those funds at a single educational institution, such as a private school.
As innovative as that is, the architects of Arizona’s pioneering choice program didn’t stop there. Unused funds can be rolled over from year to year, a policy that encourages parents to consider opportunity costs (are they getting a good bang for their educational buck?) and empowers families to save for future education expenses. Families can even roll unused funds into a college savings account.
Parents using an ESA receive distributions to their account quarterly, after having submitted receipts for all purchases to the Arizona Department of Revenue. In the event funds are used on a non-approved item or service, the subsequent quarter’s funds can be used to rectify the error. In the event of an egregious misuse of funds, ESAs are subject to audits by the state.
ESAs were first opened to Arizona children with special needs. In 2012 eligibility was expanded to include children from low-income families in underperforming schools, children of active-duty military parents, and children in Arizona’s foster-care system. In 2013, eligibility within these categories was extended to children entering kindergarten (that is, the requirement that students had to already be enrolled in public school to apply for an ESA was eliminated for kindergarteners). Today, more than 220,000 children are eligible for an ESA.
Stories from some of the first families to enter the program illustrate how life-changing the ESAs have been.
“Two years ago we weren’t even sure if we were ever going to have a conversation with him,” says Amanda Howard, mother of second-grader Nathan. “He is in a private school now for kids with developmental delays. . . . He reads now. He is reading a little below grade level. But he likes math. He is working above grade level for math. And he really loves social studies; he knows all the 50 states. So it is really exciting to see all the progress he has made verbally and being able to communicate, and that he is actually making a lot of academic progress.”
Like Jennifer Doucet, Amanda Howard credits her son’s progress in part to their ESA. “I think that for kiddos like Nathan, it really shows the difference the right education environment can make,” she says.
While the Doucets and the Howards have been using their children’s ESAs primarily to access private-school options, many Arizona families are using their accounts for a variety of education-related services and providers, completely customizing their children’s educational experiences to meet their unique learning needs.
According to a new evaluation by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, more than one-third of families are using their ESAs to pay for multiple education services along with private-school tuition. Some have eschewed private school altogether and are using their ESAs to purchase textbooks, curricula, and online classes, and pay for private tutors.
ESAs represent a complete reimagination of what it means to finance education publicly. They represent a shift from the very worthwhile goal of school choice to educational choice, the future of school choice.
As more states across the country consider ways to provide school-choice options to families, ESAs should be at the top of their lists. And states with existing voucher or tuition-tax-credit programs should consider expanding the allowable uses of funds and transitioning them to more flexible ESAs.
“When you find out your kid has autism, you go through a stage where you think you are all alone,” says Nathan’s father. “But then people slowly, but surely, point out different things. The ESA is one of those things.”
— Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation. To learn more about ESAs, read: The Education Debit Card: What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts.