SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Three years ago, Scottsdale mother Kathy Visser’s stress-filled life was consumed with not only caring for her disabled son, but also waging an ongoing campaign to secure the resources he needed at his local public school.

national school choice weekShortly after moving to the Scottsdale area five years ago, Visser enrolled her son Jordan – who suffers from a mild case of cerebral palsy and other disorders – in the local school district, but it quickly became apparent his learning environment wasn’t right.

Jordan had difficulty sitting in his chair because his muscles were weak. Visser also discovered her son had vision issues that prevented him from reading letters and words. Before long, her son’s learning problems crossed over into his home life, and Visser was spending the majority of her free time researching education laws and pushing school officials to provide the special services he needs.

“He’d be melting down in the car on the way home from school, and he’d have emotional outbursts all night until he went to bed. I could hardly get him out the door to school,” Visser said of Jordan’s first grade experience.

“The classroom they wanted him in was so chaotic I don’t know how anyone could learn,” she said. “I was having to fight the school district to give my son what he needed.”

At one point the Vissers were spending $5,000 per year for an advocate to attend meetings with school officials to fight for Jordan’s educational rights. The family eventually contacted an attorney to consider legal action against Jordan’s school, but the lawyer told them about a better option that had recently become available through legislative action: Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA), also known as education savings accounts.

The state of Arizona’s ESA program works a lot like a voucher program – families can use a portion of their child’s state education funding to access education options outside of their traditional public school district – but the money can also be used for a much wider variety of education expenses.

Arizona parents who qualify receive a debit card loaded with roughly 87 percent of their child’s state education funding they can use on private school tuition, homeschooling supplies, college tuition, online curriculum, physical therapy, private tutors, and numerous other educational expenses.

The Vissers immediately applied for an ESA for Jordan, and three years ago he became one of the first 75 students in the state to take part in the program. Since the program was formed in 2011, it has grown to more than 300 participating families as eligibility has expanded.

ESAs are now available to students with disabilities, children of military parents, foster children, or any students who have or would attend a public school graded “D” or “F” by the state.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice reports that roughly two-thirds of families currently in the ESA program use the money for private school tuition, while the other third use their funds to tailor fit their child’s educational experience.

ESAs may soon be spreading across the nation, adding to the growing menu of educational options available for students and their families. All of the options – including charter schools, private school voucher programs and cyber schools – are being highlighted during National School Choice Week, which runs from Sunday through Saturday.

A better way

The Vissers said Jordan’s $25,000 annual scholarship has literally changed their life.

“When we got the scholarship, we went into a private school,” Visser said. Although the new school was a vast improvement over Jordan’s public school, “it wasn’t quite a right fit,” she said.

“Now we homeschool and I have a lady who comes in for reading and language arts,” Visser said. “We pay for Jordan to go to science classes at the local science center. I can also pay for (physical) therapy we would have gotten through the school district.”

Jordan uses his education funding to attend hippotherapy classes (physical therapy using horses) that have greatly improved his muscle strength, and he now takes swimming lessons, as well, for physical activity.

Visser used ESA funds to purchase high-quality online math, social studies and other materials she uses at home, and also found a growing network of ESA families that are working together to provide support and socialization.

“He’s been doing (hippotherapy) with a group of guys on ESA scholarships” who also have disabilities, Visser said. “We also have a network … and we’ve been able to help each other with what we can and can’t do with the program.

“That’s a network I didn’t have before” because privacy laws prevented school officials from connecting families of disabled students, she said. “The other parents are really supportive and helpful.”

Visser said Jordan’s ESA scholarship has not only improved her son’s learning ability, it’s impacted virtually every aspect of the family’s life.

“We’re no longer spending an average of $5,000 per year fighting the school,” she said. “It’s taken a huge amount of financial stress out of the situation. Now we can focus ourselves on helping (Jordan). I’m not spending time to figure out how to manipulate the school district to meet his needs.

“There had been a lot of conflict in our house because of this,” she said, adding that the ESA “has brought a lot of peace to our house.

“These other families I know have had the same type of experience. Their homes are so much more peaceful now,” Visser said.

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