Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Arizona Adopts Education Savings Accounts To Aid Special Needs Students

Goldwater Institute developed innovative approach that will provide flexibility and more options for learning

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed today a powerful law to help families with special needs children obtain the best possible education regardless of the physical setting for that instruction. This program replaces school tuition vouchers, which the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 2009 violate the state constitution.

Senate Bill 1553 establishes education savings accounts for special needs students so their families can find a better answer when a traditional public school has failed to meet their needs. An estimated 17,000 students will be eligible to sign up for an account.

The Goldwater Institute developed the framework of education savings for students such as Lee Zwagerman, whose future could have been defined only by his Asperger syndrome. Lee’s mild autism prevented him from adapting as the public schools he attended got bigger and some of his classmates treated him badly. Feeling trapped and isolated, Lee retreated into himself.

Still, Lee’s parents never would have enrolled him in a specialized education program at a private school. They couldn’t afford it. But in 2006, the state of Arizona established private school tuition vouchers for students with specialized needs, just in time for Lee to start high school at a smaller, private campus.

Four years later, Lee’s grades are good, he has performed in the high school choir, and he plans to attend college after graduation this spring.

But after the Arizona Supreme Court struck down education vouchers, other students haven’t had the same opportunity as Lee. That worries his mom, Myra Zwagerman.

“Not every public school is for every child, or even for two children from the same family or the same value system,” Myra Zwagerman said. “I don’t think Lee would be interested in college now if he had stayed in public school.”

This is where education savings accounts come in. Unlike school vouchers, education savings accounts will help students with disabilities enroll for individual online classes, receive instruction at home or attend private schools. Enrolled students also can start taking college classes while still finishing high school, or save the money in their accounts to attend college full-time after they graduate.

In 2005, Goldwater Institute senior fellow Dan Lips first introduced the concept of funding individual accounts for families to pursue the many alternatives available to a traditional public classroom. A 2010 follow-up report by Institute senior fellow Matthew Ladner and legal scholar Nick Dranias explains such accounts will truly empower families and resolve the legal issues identified by the state Supreme Court.

“The Court said school vouchers for special needs children had to be struck down because parents really could only use them at certain private schools,” Mr. Dranias said. “Education savings accounts provide the answer that the Supreme Court asked for, by giving families real control of their education dollars to spend on a wide range of options.”

“By adopting the first education savings account program in the country, Arizona again has moved into the national forefront of education reform,” said Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute. Florida, Colorado, and several other states are following Arizona’s lead by also looking closely at implementing this program.

“Arizona adopted several time-tested policies in 2010 to address the fundamental problem that 44 percent of Arizona’s fourth-grade students in public school can’t read,” Ms. Olsen said. “Education savings accounts build on those policies by giving disadvantaged children access to the instruction most effective for them.”

SB1553 requires the state to fund an education savings account at 10 percent less than the state would otherwise spend to educate that particular student each year. This means the program saves money as well.

Also, SB1553 requires the state to conduct random audits of education savings accounts to be certain the funds are spent appropriately.
The Goldwater Institute is an independent government watchdog that develops innovative, principled solutions to issues facing the states and whose work is made possible by the generosity of its supporters.

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