New law helps parents with private schooling for disabled
State flexible-spending accounts go toward children's education
PHOENIX — Diagnosed with autism and lacking motor and language skills, Rose Fendell’s son struggled in public school as she agonized over how to find a classroom that would work for him.
Things turned around, Fendell said, when she enrolled Christopher at a Montessori school using vouchers from a state program that paid for children with disabilities to attend private schools.
“In the years he’s been there, he’s got accustomed to the company, and his comprehension of language is much better,” she said.
It was such a good fit that after a court struck down the disability vouchers program in 2009 she struggled to find scholarships to keep him in private school.
Now she sees hope for relief in a new law allowing parents to put 90 percent of state money allocated for a disabled child’s education toward private school tuition or private education services such as speech or occupational therapy.
Under the law, authored by Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, the money goes into a what amounts to flexible-spending accounts that parents control. In addition to covering education costs, the money may be saved for college.
To be eligible, a child must be disabled and must have attended at least the first 100 days of the previous academic year in public school. Children like Christopher who’ve had a scholarship from a similar program also qualify.
In return, recipients must meet requirements, such as accounting for the money quarterly, or risk losing their accounts.
Fendell said the program will help keep Christopher in his current school and pay for his occupational therapy.
“Early intervention is key,” she said. “He deserves, like any other child, to have the same opportunity to succeed.”
Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, an independent watchdog group that promotes limited government and free enterprise, said the law offers disabled children a way out of the cookie-cutter approach in public schools. He said those in chronically poor-performing schools and on American Indian reservations would especially benefit from the option of online schools.
“If you provide a one-size-fits-all program for students with very unique needs, you find students slipping through the cracks,” he said.
However, several organizations are preparing a lawsuit to end the program, contending that public funds shouldn’t go toward religious or private institutions.
“It’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed,” said attorney Donald Peters, whose clients include the Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
Liz Dreckman, executive director of Arizona School Choice Trust, a state-approved tuition organization that manages scholarships for disadvantaged children, said the biggest benefit of the program is that families can ensure their children’s money is spent appropriately.
The average Arizona child receives $6,000 to $7,000 in tuition per school year, but the amount tends to be higher for children with special needs, she said. There were 125,816 special needs students in Arizona last school year, according to the Arizona Department of Education.
“These are children who need to learn to take care of themselves and learn to communicate sometimes non-verbally, and if they had that one-to-one attention they would grow by leaps and bounds,” Dreckman said.
According to the Public School Review, a website that profiles schools and communities, private schools have smaller class sizes and lower student-to-teacher ratios than public schools.
Since the law took effect in July, 86 children have already received accounts for the fall semester. Another enrollment period is open, with applications due by Nov. 15.
Andrew LeFevre, a state Department of Education spokesman, said Arizona has some great public schools and a private one many not necessarily be better.
“But we are finding that when parents choose the environment they need to be in, that’s when we see great results,” he said.
Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, which isn’t among the groups planning to sue, called the program bad public policy. The state should instead fix shortcomings in public schools, including special needs services, he said.
“What we need to be doing is stopping that trend of cutting further and further from public schools,” Morrill said.
Tim Keller, Arizona executive director for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, said the program doesn’t dictate that the child go to private school but gives parents options including tutoring, books, therapy and online education.
The program was designed to remedy the constitutional shortcomings of the defunct vouchers program, he added.
Amid the legal uncertainty, Rose Fendell was excited when the state Education Department sent her notice that Christopher was eligible to apply for an Empowerment Scholarship.
“You want your child to have the opportunity to excel and if you allow the right environment he will grow,” she said. “But you have to fight for that environment.”