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September 10, 2013

Arizona's New Frontier for Education

Experience the stories of families who are completely customizing their children’s learning experiences, thanks to Arizona’s education savings accounts.

Similar to a flexible health savings account, an education savings account (ESA) allows parents to use the money to pay for their child’s private school tuition, textbooks, and tutoring, or to save for college. Approved expenses also include educational therapy, online classes, testing, curricula, and individual courses and extracurricular activities.

Photo Credit: Amanda Howard

“Pieceful Solutions knows the difference between when he is acting out and when he really does not understand something. They understand his social differences. They understand his sensory needs…. Without a savings account, we would not be able to afford the care that Sean needs.”
Jennifer Doucet, mother of seventh grade ESA student, Sean (pictured above)

Photo Credit: Pieceful Solutions

“Pieceful Solutions is flexible. If one kind of curriculum doesn’t work for one kind of student, then they can move on to a curriculum that does better suit their needs.... You’re going with the child’s needs, instead of having to go with [a predetermined] idea of how they should learn.” Jennifer Doucet

Photo Credit: Pieceful Solutions

“I have a private tutor for Zach, and I can use the [ESA] funds for that. With the ESA, I can actually go out and buy things for our home program, such as additional speech tools.”
Kym Wilbur, mother of eighth grade ESA student, Zach (pictured above)

Photo Credit: Pieceful Solutions

“Every student has the same schedule, but what they are doing within the schedule may be different. They are both going to math at the same time. But what Sean is working on and what Zach is working on may be very different. It depends on their ability level.” Kym Wilbur

Photo Credit: Pieceful Solutions

Today, more than 200,000 Arizona children are eligible for the education savings accounts, nearly one in five Arizona public school students: 125,000 children with special needs, 87,000 children in failing Arizona public schools (schools that received a “D” or below on their state report card), more than 11,500 children of active-duty military families, along with children adopted from the state’s foster care system.

Photo Credit: The Heritage Foundation

“Using ESA funds, students at Pieceful Solutions get smaller class sizes, better teacher-to-student ratios, extracurricular [activities] like yoga and karate, cooking class once a week, life-skills workshops like laundry class and money-handling, community outings where they get real world experience, and speech and occupational therapy.” Kym Wilbur

Photo Credit: Pieceful Solutions

Using ESA funds, families can pay for options like music therapy.

Photo Credit: Pieceful Solutions

From the inaugural year in 2011 through the spring of 2013, approximately 34 percent of ESA families chose to use their accounts to fund multiple education options, enabling them to customize their children’s educational experiences.

Photo Credit: Arizona Department of Education

Based on the data from Arizona’s ESA program, it is clear families use their share of education funding in multiple ways to meet the unique needs of their children, when given funding flexibility and choice.

Photo Credit: Pieceful Solutions

“Two years ago we weren’t even sure if we were ever going to have a conversation with him. The only reason this is possible is because we could find programs that meet his needs with ESA funds.”
Michael Howard, father of second grade student, Nathan

Photo Credit: Amanda Howard

Funding children instead of institutions gives families the flexibility to direct every dollar of that funding to their child’s education.

Photo Credit: Amanda Howard

“I think that for kiddos like Nathan, it really shows the difference the right education environment can make. Nothing against public schools—both my husband and I went to public schools—but he is really thriving in a small class with teachers that understand his learning disability, thanks to the ESA.” Amanda Howard, mother of second grade student, Nathan

Photo Credit: Amanda Howard

Families use their ESAs to finance a variety of education-related services and providers. While some use their ESAs like a school voucher, attending a single institution that they have chosen, approximately 34 percent use their ESAs to finance multiple education options in a given day, enabling them to completely customize their child’s educational experience.

Photo Credit: Arizona Department of Education

“What is good about ESA is that the funds promote choice.... ESAs allow parents to find what does work.” Kym Wilbur

Photo Credit: Pieceful Solutions

Arizona's New Frontier for Education

By

In 2011, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed S.B. 1553, creating the nation’s first education savings accounts (ESAs) for children with special needs. While traditional voucher or tax credit scholarship programs offer parents and their children the option to choose a private school, ESAs give families the flexibility to choose from a variety of educational products and services.

Similar in design to health savings accounts (HSAs), education savings accounts are bank accounts which include a debit card that the state awards to parents of eligible children. Once a family decides to withdraw from the Arizona public schools, the state deposits 90 percent of a child’s per-student funding from the state education formula onto a pre-paid card, and parents can use the card to make purchases directly or through online services like PayPal.

Parents can use ESA funds, which are deposited into their accounts quarterly, to pay for a variety of education services and providers including private-school tuition, private tutoring, special education services, homeschooling expenses, textbooks, and virtual education, enabling them to customize an education plan for their child’s unique needs. Parents may also roll over funds from year to year, and can use the money to invest in a college savings plan to pay for college tuition in the future.

Arizona law lists 11 eligible educational expenses for education savings accounts:

  • Private school tuition and fees;
  • Textbooks;
  • Educational therapies;
  • Tutoring services;
  • Curriculum materials, including manipulatives like blocks used for math lessons or map materials for geography and history activities;
  • Online classes;
  • Standardized test fees;
  • College savings plans;
  • College tuition and fees;
  • Fees for administrative management of the accounts; and
  • Public school classes and extracurricular activities.

In 2011, legislators allowed only children with special needs to be eligible for the accounts. In 2012, the ESA program expanded to include children from failing schools, children of active-duty military parents, and children adopted from the state foster care system. This expansion doubled the number of eligible students to more than 200,000. Today, the accounts serve children who are the most vulnerable to falling through the cracks of the traditional public school system.

All students should be eligible for an education savings account, just as all students are eligible to attend a public school. The same funding source is used for both—so why should some students have more educational options than others?

Education savings accounts are the most innovative education choice option in the U.S. The accounts provide student-centered funding—not just the funding for physical school buildings and classrooms. Funding children instead of institutions gives families the flexibility to direct every dollar of that funding to their child’s education.

Moreover, early data from Arizona—the only state to date with education savings accounts—shows that parents are doing just that, and are customizing their children’s educational experience. Approximately 34 percent of families in the ESA program use their funds to finance multiple education services and providers at once, creating a tailored educational experience for their children. Such control over education funding ensures parents have access to options that meet their children’s unique learning needs, and ultimately can move beyond the worthwhile goal of school choice to choice among education service providers, courses, teachers, and methods.

The level of customization that ESAs afford brings American K-12 education into the 21st century and ensures no child is relegated to the limited effectiveness of the existing monopolistic system that is all too prevalent in states across the country.