Make Parents Entrepreneurs for Their Kids' Future

By Jonathan Butcher

When they decided to adopt three children, Tim and Lynn McMurray knew there would be challenges. Alecia, Uriah, and Valerie, who are all of Native American decent but not biologically related, each had different physical and developmental needs. Alecia struggled with the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, while Uriah and Valerie were diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy. As the children grew old enough to attend school in Arizona, Tim and Lynn talked with public-school teachers and school therapists in an attempt to give their children a smooth transition to the classroom.

Things didn't go the way they planned.

Lynn says that Alecia was placed in a class that was little more than "glorified babysitting." Lynn asked herself why she was sending Alecia to school at all if her daughter wasn't learning anything.

Uriah and Valerie, both four years younger than Alecia, were the only Native American children in their class, which did not go unnoticed by their peers. "Their self-esteem was low, and I could see their future, and they would turn to drugs and alcohol in a minute if I left them in a public school," Lynn says.

Tired of fighting the system and frustrated with the lack of progress, the McMurrays did more than just choose a different school for their children -- a new program in Arizona allowed them to choose individual services to meet the unique needs of each child.

Laws passed around the U.S. in the past 20 years have given parents more school choices. Forty-two states allow parents to choose between traditional public schools and independent charter schools, and students in 16 states, along with those in Douglas County, Colo., and Washington, D.C., can use a voucher or scholarship to attend private schools. But what if parents could have even more options?

In 2011, Arizona pushed the envelope of student-centered education solutions and established Education Savings Accounts. After an eligible family completes an application, the Arizona Department of Education deposits 90 percent of the child's portion of the state funding formula into a private bank account. The parent then uses a debit card and online services such as PayPal to pay for online classes, education therapy, and private school, among other educational goods and services. Parents can even save funds from year to year and use the money left over after high school to pay for college tuition.

What started as a small reform for students with special needs is now also open to students from failing schools, children in active-duty military families, and adopted children. Students must be attending a public school when they apply for an account, and one out of every five students in Arizona public schools is eligible. This school year, 761 students are using a savings account, a tenfold increase from the program's first year.

Lynn is using a combination of home-based instruction and educational therapists to help her children. She will be the first to tell you it hasn't been easy, but she's seen tremendous improvement. Alecia, age 14, has learned to speak by singing her name. "In the first 3 months [using an account] she learned more at home with us than in her prior school," Lynn says. She adds that Uriah and Valerie are excited about learning again because other children aren't making fun of them.

Education Savings Accounts make parents entrepreneurs for their children's future. Private-school tuition is only the beginning. Parents can use the accounts to hire personal tutors or pay for individual public-school classes, and families are even using the accounts to pay the fees associated with extracurricular activities like athletics.

The accounts have the potential to give every child an effective, innovative experience. For Lynn, it's not the potential that excites her, but the results. "Anybody that sees my children now is amazed," she says. "It's wonderful that I can do this."

Jonathan Butcher is the education director at the Goldwater Institute, which designed Education Savings Accounts in 2005.

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