For about a decade Raising Special Kids has assisted Arizona families to understand the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program as a part of the many school choice options available in our state, so that they have the information they need to make a decision that is right for their family.
In this issue of Connecting we talk about this program and hear from families that have participated in it. I hope you will find information on this program informative and balanced. I would like to personally thank Kimberly Poeling, Desiree Heiser, Kathy Visser, Jenny Clark, Stacey Plant, and Kelly Randall for sharing their lived experience.
Raising Special Kids was founded on the principle of parents helping parents. Our mission, strengthening families and systems of care to improve the lives of children who have disabilities, broadly describes our work in two areas:
- Individual family support assistance (parent training, individual problem-solving support, parent to parent support, etc.), and
- providing a voice for families who have children with disabilities in systems of care and with policymakers (health care and education systems councils, committees, boards and other state and regional systems-level meetings).
We recognize the benefit of the ESA to individual students who have disabilities and their families, especially those who have struggled in traditional public schools and charters to develop individualized education programs that meet their academic, behavioral and social and emotional needs. We also understand that relationship development, learning the language of special education, communication, and self-advocacy is not easy and can be downright frustrating, at times, for families. As Arizona’s Parent Training and Information Center we assist families with these challenges daily.
We must also acknowledge that the ESA program and its continual expansion, weakens Arizona’s public education system as a whole by diverting public education funding from public schools (traditional and charter). It also requires families to opt-out of public education, voluntarily give up their right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education, due process, and the full scope of protections available to them under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); the very things that disability advocates and families fought so very hard for 45 years ago.
Lastly and perhaps our largest concern is equitable access to the ESA program itself for families. We recognize that the program is available to any student/family that is eligible, but that not every eligible student/family is able to participate due to a number of factors including transportation, reporting requirements, geographic location, culture, language, socioeconomic, and other barriers for families in accessing the program.
The Empowerment Scholarship Account program in some respects brings the two parts of our mission into disharmony with each other – a good option for individual families, and a slow erosion of Arizona’s public education system. A mentor of mine recently reminded me that “two things can be true at the same time.” Raising Special Kids will continue to provide high-quality, relevant, and useful information to Arizona’s families, and we will continue to advocate for equitable access and a strong public education system with policymakers and Arizona’s systems of care that serve families who have children with disabilities and special health care needs.