A proposed law could expand educational opportunities for students with disabilities in Missouri by allowing families greater flexibility in how they allocate the state’s funding of their child’s education. Missouri’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts would be an education savings account (ESA) program. A model for this type of targeted program already exists in Arizona.
Before Arizona adopted its ESA program, Salima’s parents were not in control of their daughter’s learning. They wanted a small but inclusive environment for Salima, who has Down syndrome.
“We didn’t feel as though the teacher in the classroom, as well as the administration, welcomed the idea of inclusion,” reflected Salima’s mom.
Arizona legislators recognized that parents know best, so the state adopted the first ESA program in 2011. Salima and 760 other Arizona children received customized educations in 2014. Now, nearly 2,500 Arizona children are enrolled in the state’s Empower Scholarship Account program.
The table below shows how many children are currently using ESAs in Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi. Nevada and Tennessee will launch their programs in January 2016 and 2017, respectively.
ESAs place a student’s funding into a flexible-use spending account, like a health savings account, that families can then use on qualifying educational purchases. Missouri’s ESA program would have a slight wrinkle, as the funding for the scholarships would actually come from private donations to scholarship-granting organizations for which donors would receive a tax credit, but the logic is the same. The graphic at the top of this post explains the process.
A taxpayer makes a donation to a nonprofit organization charged with managing ESAs. That organization then puts money equal to no more than the state adequacy target into a child’s account. For the 2016–2017 and 2017–2018 school years, the state adequacy target has been set to $6,808. Parents can spend the account funds on resources like private school tuition and fees, tutoring, online courses, education therapies, and curricula. Upon graduation, leftover funds can be directed toward postsecondary tuition and fees. The state Department of Economic Development would offer up to $50 million in tax credits to taxpayers who make contributions.
Only qualified students would have access to the program. Qualified students include students:
- Who are identified as having a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
- Who are identified by a district as having a disability
- Who receive services from a district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
- Who are or have been wards of the juvenile court and have been placed with permanent guardians
- Who attended a public school for at least the first 100 days of the prior school year
- Who are eligible to begin kindergarten
There are surely parents in Missouri who, like Salima’s, are frustrated with public schools that don’t meet their children’s needs. An ESA would give those parents a chance to customize their children’s educations. For more information about how ESAs work in other states, view the Friedman Foundation’s interactive map.