“When I would pick her up almost every evening, she would wait until she got into the car and she would just start weeping.”
That’s what Veronica, mother of Salima, who has Down syndrome, says in a powerful video about her daughter’s experience at her assigned public school.
But thanks to a fairly new school choice policy, Salima’s life is now totally different. And starting this year, it won’t just be Arizonans like Salima who are affected: Florida children will also have access to this innovative school choice program.Starting this year, Florida students with Down syndrome have new education options that could enhance their ability to reach their full potential, thanks to the Sunshine State’s recent adoption of innovative education savings accounts (ESAs), known in Florida as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts.
Eligible students in Florida, which include, in addition to children with Down syndrome, children in kindergarten through grade 12 with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Prader-Willi Syndrome, intellectual disabilities, Spina bifida and Williams Syndrome, can use 90 percent of what the state would have spent on them in their assigned public school to finance multiple education-related services and products. Students remain eligible to continue using their education savings account until they graduate high school, or reach 22 years of age, whichever comes first.
Modeled after Arizona’s first-in-the-nation ESA program, which was established in 2011, parents are able to direct dollars (which are loaded onto a parent-controlled, restricted-use debit card) to multiple education services, products and providers. Parents can pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, curricula, textbooks and a host of other education-related services and products. Parents can even rollover unused funds from year-to-year, in anticipation of future education-related expenses.
The experiences of children like Salima, an Arizona third grader born with Down syndrome, show that being able to access education options that meet her unique learning needs is critical to ensuring her future success, health, and lifelong learning. Thanks to the ESA option, which has empowered Salima’s family to choose a school that is responsive to her unique needs, the change in Salima has been “night and day,” her father, Joe, says.
Salima’s teacher Amber Mieras explains that, “it’s all about what’s best for the kids. And that needs to be at the forefront. Not about what’s best for the funding, or the public or private schools, it’s what’s best for the kids.”
Not only is Mieras Salima’s third grade teacher, she is also mom to six-month-old Jax, who was born with Down syndrome.
“When my son was born with Down syndrome, I felt very lucky, but very scared, because I didn’t know what that meant for him,” Mieras recalls in the video.
“And I knew how to handle him as an infant, [but] I didn’t know what to imagine him as a one-year-old, or a two-year-old. And the biggest question I had, which seems so ridiculous, is ‘would he have friends?’ …Salima makes it ok. What she can do, he can do, and she’s paving the way,” she says.
Although eligibility to participate in Florida’s ESA option is limited to students with special needs, any child from an underperforming school in Arizona can participate, as can any child in foster care, children from active-duty military families, children with special needs and entering kindergarten students who meet the aforementioned eligibility criteria.
Florida’s ESA option, which has only been in operation since this beginning of this school year, is already changing the lives of children–and their families–with special needs.
Faith was born with Down syndrome, and her mom, Julie, is now able to use self-directed funds to provide specialized services for her daughter, including speech and physical therapy along with private tutoring.
Education savings accounts are the next generation of school choice, and are increasingly being adopted by states across the country. They allow for self-directed education and customized learning, and most importantly, are changing the lives of children in states like Arizona and Florida.