Cindie Smith is not one to shy away from a challenge.
Having already raised two biological children, she adopted four children with special needs and is determined to help each of them succeed.
Smith and her family live in Arizona, one of five states that offer education savings accounts to eligible students. With an account, the state deposits a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula in a private account that parents use to buy education products and services for their children.
Some 15,000 students across Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee are using the accounts this school year.
The accounts have proven valuable to families like Smith’s, because parents can pay for textbooks, education therapy, private school tuition, and personal tutors—to name a few possible uses—and simultaneously, if they choose.
Parents can use an account to customize their child’s learning experience.
Smith is using the accounts to provide education therapy for three of her children and specific learning materials to help her children at home.
“They each get the one-on-one time with me and a paraprofessional,” she says, adding that education savings accounts “have opened doors that I could not have provided for my children on my own.”
Parents using the accounts in other states are reporting similar stories. Surveys of account holders in Mississippi and Arizona have found high levels of satisfaction among parents. Ninety-one percent of account holders who responded to a survey in Mississippi reported being either very satisfied or satisfied with their child’s account.
This year, South Carolina lawmakers are considering a proposal to make the accounts available to students with special needs, like Smith’s adopted children. More than 100,000 South Carolina children—more than 1 in 10—are youngsters with special needs that could use an account to find solutions to fit their learning needs.
Under the current proposal, children in active-duty military families, adopted children, and students from low-income families would also be eligible.
To protect taxpayers and students, parents would complete expense reports, and accounts will be audited periodically. That allows families the opportunity to educate their children at home or send a child to a new school, or some combination of those arrangements, and demonstrates how parents are challenging their students.
Studies from Arizona have found that more than one-third of education savings account holders are using them for multiple products and services. In Florida, more than 40 percent of families are using the accounts in that way.
Lawmakers and taxpayers will be able to follow how each dollar is spent, a notable improvement over existing public school finance formulas. Audits of Arizona’s accounts have found levels of misspending that total about 1 percent of all account funds, and these reports include accidental purchases that parents repaid to the state Department of Education.
For current homeschool families in South Carolina, the accounts would not affect them. Homeschoolers there not using an account would not have to make any changes to their daily routines or record keeping. The accounts would not create new requirements for those students.
But for those South Carolina families looking for help for a student with unique needs, an account could be life-changing.
“I love having an [education savings account],” says Smith, the Arizona mom using them for her adopted children. “I am so happy. We will continue to do what we are doing with an account.”