Providing a lifeline for our most vulnerable children
Do you have a friend, coworker, or family member who has a child with special needs? Maybe that child is your niece, nephew, son, or daughter. Regardless of our backgrounds, professions, or family histories, we have all been touched by a child with special needs. This week, the Tennessee House Education Subcommittee and Senate Education Committee will cast critical votes on legislation to provide these children with Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that could finally break down the barriers between these children and the stable, encouraging environment they need to learn and grow. After months of research and doctor visits, Holland—a young mother living in Arizona—discovered that her son, Elias, was exhibiting signs of autism. She began aggressively searching and identifying resources that could help address his special needs. Elias would eventually require 20-40 hours per week of individual therapies to help him interact with his peers. Understandably, Elias was engulfed by his feelings of vulnerability and isolation from his fellow students. “I was being called several times a week to pick up a crying, shaking little boy who was crouched under a table and asking for help,” Holland describes. In 2011, Holland applied for was granted an ESA for Elias, a relatively new concept that she hoped would finally address Elias’s unique conditions. Arizona was the first state to adopt ESAs, a program whereby the state deposits funds into a bank account that Holland can use to pay for Elias’s educational resources, therapies, academic materials, and school tuition. This allows him to learn alongside other children with similar challenges. Furthermore, funds remaining in the account after Elias graduates high school can be used towards his college education expenses. This year, Tennessee has the opportunity to follow in Arizona’s footsteps by passing similar legislation that could bring this critical lifeline to Tennessee families with special needs children. Sponsored by Sen. Dolores Gresham and Rep. Debra Moody, the “Individualized Education Act” (SB27/HB138) would establish ESAs for parents of special needs children to administer according to their child’s unique circumstances. The money we already spend on a child’s education could then be used for specific expenses, such as educational therapy, extracurricular special instruction, private school tuition, additional enrichment resources, and other scholastic programs or materials to help address the specific challenges that child faces. State legislators rarely have the opportunity to positively impact the lives of individual children so directly. Extending ESAs to those families most in need should be among a lawmaker’s proudest moments in 2015.