Education savings accounts empower families when public schools fail them

More than 50,000 Arizona teachers walked out of class in April 2017 to demand more funding for public education.

Editor’s note: This commentary from Jonathan Butcher, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation and a reimaginED guest blogger, appeared today on The Federalist.

What happens when a little kid can’t say his name or his teacher’s name?” asked Kelly Pichitino, mother of a child with special needs in Arizona. “What if there is something urgent where you have to get all the kids out of the school?”

Pichitino pondered these questions in 2017 when Arizona teachers closed schools and marched on the state Capitol as part of the RedforEd movement. At that time, Pichitino, a former Parent Teacher Association president and a firm believer in the value of public schools, had sympathy for the movement, but she still had to care for her son.

Eventually, she became fed up with the strike and applied for an education savings account. With such an account, state officials deposited a portion of her child’s education spending in an account that Pichitino could manage and use to buy education products and services for her son. According to her, the account was “life-changing” and “opened up customized education and therapies” that she could purchase and use in their home.

Her son was just starting elementary school during the strikes. Doctors had told Pichitino that he was on the autism spectrum, and she was already concerned that he had not yet learned to speak. She was counting on help from his assigned school.

Pichitino said that when RedforEd closed classrooms, “kids had nowhere to go.”

“I had to find things to do to keep him educated,” she explained. It was not long before she realized: “I can do this.”

“I learned that week that he can learn,” Pichitino told me. Once she gained access to her son’s education savings account, she taught Ben at home and could choose his speech and occupational therapists. “There is no label put on him,” she said, and he is “not put in the back of the school in a trailer.”

Pichitino added, “He wants to learn here.”

The Pichitinos are one of nearly 12,000 Arizona families using the accounts today. And this number is likely to increase now that the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has signed legislation that makes every Arizonan child eligible for an education savings account.

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