Opinion

Education Savings Accounts Give Parents And Students Choice In Education Decisions

Jonathan Butcher Education Director, Goldwater Institute

When Elias turned 4 months old, his mom, Holland, knew something was wrong. Holland explained he needed to be held constantly, and while most babies do not sleep through the night, Elias’s discomfort was troubling.

After months of research and doctor visits, Holland discovered that Elias had symptoms on the autism spectrum. He would need 20-40 hours per week of individual therapies to help him function each day.

When he was old enough to attend school in Arizona, Holland said that Elias’s educational needs were diverse. Along with autism, he had hyperlexia, a precocious reading ability.

Holland said a traditional school setting did not work: “I was being called several times a week to pick up a crying, shaking little boy who was crouched under a table and asking for help.”

In 2011, Holland and Elias applied for an education savings account. Arizona was the first state to adopt the accounts, and the state deposits public funds in a bank account that Holland used to pay for Elias’s education needs. The accounts allowed Holland to pay for education therapies, school textbooks, and private school tuition.

Parents can also use the accounts to pay for college classes and online classes. A 2013 survey of families using the accounts found that parents take advantage of all of these possibilities, along with the purchase of public school extracurricular activities such as sports teams. Parents deposit leftover money in college savings plans.

The accounts’ flexibility has helped Holland find a host of quality services for Elias. Holland said that Elias had an adapted schedule that allowed him to attend school half-time to work on academics, social interaction, and classroom etiquette. The other half of his school week was spent attending speech, occupational, physical, and music therapies that his doctor prescribed.

National School Choice Week (Jan. 25-31) is a chance to celebrate the quality educational options available to parents like Holland and their children. Today, some 300,000 children across the country benefit from an education savings account or private school scholarships. In Arizona, children with special needs, like Elias, can use an education savings account, as well as children from failing public schools, adopted children, and children in active duty military families.

Parents are using the accounts to help their children catch up to their peers in some cases and get ahead of their classmates in others.

Rigorous research continues to find that giving parents choices over where and how to educate their children has long-term benefits. In fact, new research from Harvard and the Brookings Institution finds that “[school] vouchers may have a long-term impact on college graduation rates.” Researchers found that “minority students who received a school voucher to attend private elementary schools [were]…35 percent more likely than their peers in public school to obtain a bachelor’s degree.”

Quality options like Arizona’s accounts are helping thousands of students all over the U.S. While traditional public schools may be a good place for some children to learn, Elias is a reminder that every child is different. No single classroom can be the best place for every child.

Fortunately, lawmakers around the country have gotten this message. Legislators and governors in states like Indiana, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio have provided children with access to private schools for nearly two decades in some states. In 2014, Florida became the second state to enact education savings accounts. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia allow teachers and community leaders to create charter schools, public schools that operate independently from school districts.

Today, the term “school choice” can be more than simply choosing a school for a child. Children can learn through online tutoring programs, find scholarships that help families pay for private school tuition and for homeschool materials, and parents can design a combination of services with an education savings account.

Holland said the savings account has been one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of her family’s journey.

“The program allows the one person who knows best ·what her child needs — the parent — to make the most important education decisions for her child,” said Holland.

Jonathan Butcher is the education director at the Goldwater Institute and the private sector chair of the Task Force on Education for the American Legislative Exchange Council.