By Contributing Scholar: Jonathan Butcher

 

As a teacher, Julie Young knew her grandson was going to need help outside of the classroom. He had been diagnosed with dyslexia, and he struggled to “retain anything he saw on paper,” Julie said.

Julie and her family live in Arizona, where students with special needs are among the children eligible for education savings accounts. Julie applied for an account and saw results almost immediately.

She used the account to enroll him in occupational therapy, and “within a matter of weeks, I noticed a huge improvement,” Julie says. “His OT helped him memorize his multiplication tables by using silly songs. Every day he made gains in areas that never seemed to stick before,” she says.

With an education savings account, the state deposits a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula into a private account that parents use to buy education products and services for their children. Lawmakers in six states have enacted such laws, including Georgia’s neighbors: Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi (Nevada and North Carolina legislators have also passed legislation).

The accounts are distinct from private school scholarships because parents and students can select multiple learning options simultaneously. It’s not unusual for account holders to find a personal tutor for their child, enroll their student in education therapy services, and pay for instructional materials to be used at home. Research from Arizona finds that approximately one-third of account holders use education savings accounts for a set of learning options. More than 40 percent of Florida account holders do so.

Parents want to be able to challenge their students and are prepared to customize their child’s learning experience. One Arizona mom explained that doctors had diagnosed her son as being on the autism spectrum, and despite special services in a district school, he had not learned to talk. After using an account to select a speech therapist of their choosing, “Nathan has learned to talk and he loves learning to spell and even reading books… He’s using complete sentences and even asking and answering questions on a regular basis.”

In Florida, a mom of three adopted children and two biological children uses an account (called Gardiner Scholarships) for her adopted daughter, Elizabeth, to buy instructional materials for use in the home. In an interview, the mom said, “I could reinforce what was and wasn’t happening in the classroom.” Today, Elizabeth has returned to a district school, and her mom says she “wouldn’t be where we are without the intense therapies that I was able to do because of the Gardiner scholarship.”

Now Georgia lawmakers are considering a proposal that would make accounts available to children with special needs, students from low income families, adopted children, students in active duty military families, and children who have been bullied in school.

Experiences from other states demonstrate that students from all walks of life can benefit from the accounts. Arizona lawmakers enacted the nation’s first law in 2011 for children with special needs but have expanded student eligibility since. By the 2015-2016 school year, approximately 40 percent of account holders were children that met other eligibility criteria: 15 percent of account holders were students previously assigned to failing schools; 11 percent were children from military families; 8 percent were adopted students; and 6 percent were Native American students living on tribal lands.

As for Julie, an education savings account has allowed her to set new goals for her grandson. “My grandson understands his limitations,” she says. “He has a long road to go before all of his basic skills are mastered, but I feel confident that so long as we can… [meet] his individual needs, he will succeed in anything he chooses to do.”

Every Georgia parent or loved one wants to have the same vision for success for their child. The education savings account proposal puts these aspirations within reach for thousands of students across the state. Every family wants to have an opportunity like this.