Our Most Vulnerable Need Education Freedom. Why do lawmakers stand in their way?

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This column has been modified from the original version written by Heather Madden, October 20, 2023
Our Most Vulnerable Need Education Freedom. What’s Standing In Their Way?

Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) lift all boats, particularly those holding our most vulnerable students.

Thankfully, (Rhode Island) still has the opportunity to enact critical ESA legislation.  One ESA-type proposal, previously developed by the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity would not require any additional funding to partially fund private school tuitions for some, while actually increasing the per-pupil spending for the vast majority of the students who remain in public schools.

Under the bill, qualifying families would receive taxpayer funding annually to use for eligible education-related expenses such as tutoring, tuition, and therapies. Giving parents the ability to access these funds directly, and the freedom to select the best education for their children, would be transformative.

I’ve spoken to countless parents of students with special needs who say private- or home-schooling are the only viable options for their children. Many do not trust their government-assigned school and have serious doubts that it can accommodate the needs of their child. Indeed, it’s no secret that public schools in Rhode Island have repeatedly failed this population. With this in mind, many households have made great financial sacrifices in order to provide non-public schooling and/or therapies for their children.

Heartbreakingly, though, many households simply do not have the means to make these sacrifices. Instead, the students remain trapped in the public education system, even if they encounter delays in receiving proper evaluation or difficulty accessing much-needed services. Sadly, all parents can do is stand by and watch their children suffer.

Rhode Island should follow Arizona’s example, which has set the standard for education freedom, so that these parents do not feel helpless any longer. Sharon Canaday in Arizona knew a traditional educational setting wasn’t a good fit for her daughter who has trauma-related behavioral issues and autism. Thankfully, she found the perfect fit, a one-on-one homeschooling program through Enlightium Academy. Had it not been for ESA funding, however, their family would not have been able to afford this option. While finding the best education fit for a child can be a real struggle, as Sharon puts it,  an “ESA takes down a lot of those barriers and makes educational choice available to people [whom] it wouldn’t be available to otherwise.”

In the case of special-needs children, there is no one-size-fits-all method to meet their needs as these students require varying types of therapy, programs, and classroom arrangements. In other words, “no two children have the exact same needs, and a standardized education often pushes aside those who don’t fit the mold, or crushes their spirits until they do fit the mold,” says Elizabeth Wright, whose son has speech and developmental disabilities. Thanks to Arizona’s ESA program, he improved significantly after getting the speech therapy he needed.

While special needs students and other vulnerable groups must be prioritized for ESA program eligibility, all students stand to benefit from ESAs. They, too, deserve access to the best education possible. This is why Arizona recently became the first state to make its ESA program universally available to all children.

It’s understandable that politicians fear the electoral repercussions of taking a stand for education freedom given the staggering power of teachers unions, but Texas lawmakers need to recognize that 74% of Texas parents with school-aged children support the implementation of ESA programs.

Providing the opportunity to access the highest-level education possible to students, particularly our most vulnerable, will change lives and improve our communities for the better. Not only does more freedom in education bring about improved academic achievement for students, including for those who opt to stay in public schools, but evidence shows that more choice also leads to higher levels of civic altruism, greater tolerance for those from different backgrounds, and lower levels of crime.

For all these reasons, it’s high time that Rhode Island joins the ranks of the 15 states that have enacted ESA programs and bring education freedom to our students.

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