- - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Jordan is 10 years old and lives in Arizona. He has cerebral palsy. Even after years of expensive fights with the local school system, Jordan’s parents weren’t able to meet all of his unique needs within the public schools.

Then, a new state program allowed his family to use an educational savings account to tailor Jordan’s education to meet his needs and things turned around.

His mom, Kathy, said, “I’m seeing children that are blossoming, that were not learning in the traditional system, and to me that’s accountability.”

Virginia has excellent public schools that serve millions of young people. But the truth is there are still too many children stuck in failing schools, or special needs children mired in failing programs that don’t meet their needs.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education show that nearly one in three fourth-graders cannot read at a basic level. Only a quarter of high-school seniors are proficient in math.

It’s clear that we must continue to reform our public schools.

Giving more opportunities and choices to students and parents must be part of the solution as well. All children, regardless of the zip code they were born in, should have access to the opportunities afforded by a great education.

In Virginia, I am introducing a bill to enact Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts, (PCESAs), which would be similar to the successful model in Arizona. These savings accounts would empower students with special and unique needs to get the full opportunity that a quality education provides.

Under the proposal, students with special needs, foster children and active duty military families would be eligible for an education savings account that could be accessed via a debit card. Through the savings account, parents could direct 90 percent of what the state would have spent on their child in public school toward the education options that best fit their child’s unique needs.

Participating children would receive an annual deposit in their accounts to use for a range of educational expenses. Unspent savings from K-12 schooling could be applied to higher education costs. Account expenditures will be subject to audit to ensure the integrity of the program, and monies not used within four years of secondary school graduation for educational purposes are returned to the state.

Education savings accounts are gaining in popularity. Two months after Florida became the second state to set up education savings accounts, its program already had more than 3,000 applicants.

This program does not come at the expense of our public schools, but actually will likely have a positive effect on public school funding. Special needs students are ideal candidates for these savings accounts, as their learning needs require individualized help that school districts often struggle to provide, and that many parents could provide better given the financial resources. Foster children often suffer from a lack of educational consistency as changing foster care environments move them from setting to setting. With a PCESA, those children could have the continuity and tailored learning tools that they need.

Children of active military families would also be eligible for PCESAs. Many of the active duty families in Virginia choose to use private, correspondence or home instruction to maintain continuity and consistency for their family while they move from place to place. These savings accounts would help them do that.

In Virginia, the No. 1 critical shortage area among teachers is special education. This PCESA proposal would allow parents to access other education resources to provide their special needs children with personalized education plans. Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts will help those students who choose an alternative educational environment that better addresses their learning needs.

Virginia has excellent public schools, but they are sadly not meeting the needs of all of their students. We do not face a choice between helping our public schools or giving parents more choices. We must work toward both, and a program that allows students most in need a better opportunity to get a great education is a significant step in the right direction. Education savings accounts will enable families in Virginia to access more nimble, responsive education options.

Dave LaRock is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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