CHIPLEY, Fla. – The Hay family represents two compelling education choice stories at once:
- Education choice works in rural areas, and
- It’d work even better if everyone had the means to access it.
Including everyone in the same family.
In the Hays’s case, some of their kids have easier access to learning options than others.
Three of the five Hay kids – Annabella, 12; Joseph, 10; and Andrew, 6 – have spherocytosis, a rare blood disorder. Two of them – Randall, 14; and Noah, 8 – do not.
But Casey and Randall Hay don’t want to enroll any of their children in school, public or private, given that the three with the blood disorder have compromised immune systems. They risk severe illness or death if they’re exposed to common ailments like pink eye or strep throat – and the Hays have a decade of emergency room visits and ICU stays to prove it.
The Hays really have no choice but to homeschool.
And that’s where the complications with deciding who can and can’t have education choice come into play.
The three Hay children with special needs are eligible for Florida’s state-funded education savings accounts, better known as ESAs. ESAs are far more flexible that traditional school choice scholarships, because they’re not limited to private school tuition.
They can be used for tuition, tutors, therapists, technology, curriculum and a long list of other state-approved uses. Parents can use ESAs to send their kids to private schools, or they can home-school. They can mix and match services and providers in whatever combination works best for their child.
Casey Hay says the ESAs have been life-changing for her three kids who are eligible.
But under state law, the other two Hay children are only eligible for traditional choice scholarships, which are limited to private schools.
That puts the Hays in a pickle.
Thanks to ESAs, they can access a wide range of educational programs and services for three of their kids. But they can’t easily access the same possibilities for the other two.
For example, Casey Hay just signed Joseph up for a coding class, using money from his ESA. The online class is about $350 for 16 weeks. But Hay, who works as a nurse at a state prison, said she didn’t have the money to sign up Randall and Noah, even though they were pumped about coding, too.
“It’s hard because the (ESA) scholarship covers all this stuff for my other kids, and I want all my kids to have the opportunity,” Casey Hay said. “I don’t want to say, ‘Well, your brother has that opportunity, but I can’t afford it for you.’ That’s the position we’re in.”
The Hays have been through a lot, even beyond their kids’ medical challenges.
Randall Hay is a disabled Army veteran who served in Iraq and is set to begin working in fleet maintenance for FedX. Four years ago, he and Casey were working towards a dream project: setting up a transitional housing program for other veterans.
They bought 10 acres near Panama City, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where Randall grew up. The land was covered in pines, and quiet. Perfect, they thought, not only for Randall, who is triggered by loud noises, but for other vets with similar sensitivities. The couple bought an RV so the family could live on the land while they prepped it.
Then came Hurricane Michael.
The Category 5 hurricane demolished the RV and knocked down most of the trees. Without the trees, it was no longer the tranquil place Randall and Casey needed for their dream to work.
In the aftermath, the family relocated a half hour north to Chipley, a town of 3,660. They bought a house on an acre, with room for chickens, rabbits, goats and a pig named – and destined to be – Crispy Bacon.
Chipley is halfway between Tallahassee and Pensacola, in a county partial to possums and watermelons. But even here, Casey Hay said, it’s easy – with ESAs – to put together an education program that is customized for each of her children.
Annabella, for example, is dyslexic. So, a good chunk of her ESA goes towards an online reading tutor.
“That reading tutor has been my life saver,” Casey Hay said. “It used to be Annabella was in tears even before I pulled the book out. Now she’s reading everything. And doing it without tears.”
Joseph, meanwhile, is obsessed with penguins and other sea creatures, and drawn to anything related to science and engineering. Casey Hay looks for books and academic games that tie Joseph’s passions to core subjects. She orders a steady stream of STEM kits to keep him challenged.
“He wants to do, not sit,” Casey Hay said. “We’re going to build an area in his room where he can build things. He is very hands on.”
The Hays also uses ESA funds for curriculum, digital devices, art supplies and homeschool co-op classes.
Between growing numbers of co-op classes, better and better online programs and what she can find and teach herself, Casey Hay said, “The resources for education are endless, even in the middle of nowhere.”
Rural parents, it turns out, are especially resourceful when it comes to maximizing the potential of ESAs to customize education, according to this research that examined the spending patterns of ESA families in Florida.
Last year, the number of students using ESAs in Florida topped 25,000, including 731 students in Florida’s 30 rural counties. Those numbers will more than double this year, with the conversion of McKay Scholarships – formerly traditional school choice scholarships for students with disabilities – into ESAs. But ESAs are still not available to general education students in Florida, unlike their peers in West Virginia and Arizona.
For her kids with ESAs, “The scholarships have helped tremendously,” Casey Hay said. “It’s teaching them to enjoy learning because we can explore their interests.”
If only all her kids could have one.