Andrea Wiggins has five children — three adopted and two biological. Some have gone to public schools, while others attended K-12 private schools using scholarships. Over the last 10 years, she has made more decisions about how and where her children will learn than most parents do in a lifetime.
Each decision has been driven by Andrea’s desire to give each child the learning experience best suited to their individual needs. Her adopted daughter, Elizabeth, for example, has special needs. Andrea knew Elizabeth “had some significant attachment issues and a lot of learning delays.”
“I had gone through college and had my special education teaching perspective,” Andrea said in an interview, “but living with it every single day at home, there was definitely something going on.”
Doctors diagnosed Elizabeth with intellectual, cognitive and emotional impairments including reactive attachment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Unlike in Utah, in Florida children with special needs — like Elizabeth — are eligible for education savings accounts (called Gardiner Scholarships) that allow families to customize a child’s learning experience to meet her unique needs. With an account, the state deposits approximately $10,000 in a private account that parents can use to buy education products and services.
Andrea bought curriculum materials for Elizabeth and paid for intensive therapies and private school tuition. “I could reinforce what was and wasn’t happening in the classroom,” Andrea says.
Today, approximately 11,000 Florida children are using Gardiner Scholarships to find education therapies, hire personal tutors, pay private school tuition, or purchase learning materials like textbooks. Families can even save unused money from year to year.
Florida is one of six states where legislators have made these accounts available to students. Arizona lawmakers enacted the nation’s first accounts in 2011 (called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts), and after Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed Florida’s law three years later, lawmakers in Nevada, Tennessee and Mississippi adopted similar proposals in 2015. North Carolina lawmakers enacted an account law in 2017.
Many families in Utah need flexible solutions like these to prepare their children for success. Utah’s population is growing rapidly, which means a larger K-12 population, more children with special needs, and an employment sector that is also changing. According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, retail jobs are growing at a slower pace than occupations in the fields of information technology and health care. Utah’s parents and education system need flexibility to prepare students for a changing workplace.
Utah saw K-12 enrollment increase by 10 percent between 2011 and 2016, the third-largest rate of growth among U.S. states and Washington, D.C. Thirteen percent of Utah K-12 students have special needs. That’s in line with the national average (14 percent), but Utah leads the nation in terms of an increase in the percent of students with special needs. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of children receiving special services in Utah increased by nearly 48 percent.
Like Florida, Arizona’s accounts are available to students with special needs, but also to children previously assigned to failing schools, students living on Native American reservations, children in military families, adopted children, and more. Approximately one-third of account holders use education savings accounts for more than one learning option at a time — a feature that distinguishes the accounts from traditional private school scholarships.
In sum: Children from different backgrounds are benefiting from education savings accounts.4 comments on this story
With more students overall and more children with special needs, along with different employment opportunities, Utah officials need to give parents new ways to challenge their children.
After Andrea used an account to pay for services to help her daughter, Andrea felt Elizabeth was ready to go to a district high school. Elizabeth is thriving there today.
Andrea says, “We really wouldn’t be where we are without the intense therapies that I was able to do because of the Gardiner scholarship.”
Utah’s remarkable growth and dynamic jobs sector call for education solutions like these accounts so that families and lawmakers can help students achieve in school — and in life.