William Mattox | January 1, 2016

Personalized Account Has Made All the Difference

William Mattox

By William Mattox

Seven years ago, when Katie Swingle’s son was only 18 months old, a doctor reported that her boy’s autism would probably prevent him from ever being able to speak. Today, Katie’s son is not only communicating orally, but he’s also writing—in cursive! And Katie says the Florida Legislature is partly to thank.

That’s because Florida legislators adopted an innovative policy several years ago that enables parents of children with unique abilities to “customize” their child’s education. Under this new policy, parents can elect to have the per-pupil funds for their child deposited into a personal learning account that the parents can then use on a wide array of instructional materials, classroom programs, tutorial services, and learning therapies tailored to their child’s unique needs

Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSAs) have proved so popular with parents of special-needs children that the Florida Legislature passed a major expansion in 2015—tripling the size of the program and extending eligibility to cover a broader range of student disabilities, including muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, dyslexia, ADHD, multiple sclerosis, and blindness.

One of the reasons PLSAs (in other states they’re known as ESAs, or education savings accounts) have generated so much enthusiasm is that they fill several gaps not covered by Florida’s long-standing scholarship program for special-needs students. For example, PLSAs are available to students who haven’t completed a year at public school. This proved very important to Katie and her husband since their son’s public school experience was extremely short-lived.

“We started with kindergarten, and within a week I knew we were in trouble,” Katie told a Florida legislative committee in 2015. “It wasn’t the school’s fault—they did everything they could to help me.” But since her child’s unique needs were “impossible” for the local public school to address, Katie withdrew him (and in so doing lost the opportunity to qualify for a special-needs scholarship after a year).

Thanks to the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, the Swingles weren’t left out in the cold. Instead, they were able to deposit into a PLSA the per-pupil tax dollars that would have otherwise been spent for their son to attend public school. With the PLSA, the Swingles were able to pay for a variety of educational programs that collectively meet their son’s learning needs.

Like the Swingles, more than 1,700 Florida families have benefited from the freedom and flexibility PLSAs offer. And many more would like to do so. In the year after the law passed, more than 5,000 Florida families applied to the program—and interest in the program shows no signs of slowing down.

Another reason PLSAs have become so popular is because Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts can be used to buy “unbundled” educational services from multiple providers—including instructional materials, curriculum, speech therapy, hearing aids, tuition, tutoring, and assessment fees.

As one might imagine, having the flexibility to obtain “unbundled” services is particularly important to students with unique abilities since many schools aren’t equipped to meet certain needs.

Yet, many “regular” students, particularly at the high school level, could also benefit from the kind of “unbundled” flexibility PLSAs provide—especially since it is simply unfair to expect any school to be able to meet all the learning needs of every single student.

To make it easier for regular students to take advantage of special learning opportunities (such as online courses not offered in the classroom), Nevada recently became the first state to adopt “universal” education savings accounts for all interested K-12 students. And a number of other states, including Oklahoma, are now considering similar policies that would allow all students to eventually benefit from these flexible learning accounts.

Matt Ladner, a research expert with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, believes that education savings accounts are “the way of the future.” Not only do these policies give parents the opportunity to customize learning for their children, but they protect the taxpayer’s interest in getting “bang for the buck” in education.

That’s because education savings accounts allow parents to roll over any unused dollars from one year to the next—and/or to put unused dollars into a college savings fund. As such, these innovative policies give parents an incentive to do in education what they already do when shopping for food, clothes, or other necessities for their children—find the highest possible quality at the lowest possible price.

Adopting personal learning accounts is a great way for legislators to assist dedicated moms like Katie Swingle. Even more, enacting policies of this kind is a great way to help all children reach their full potential.

William Mattox is the director of the Marshall Center for Educational Options at the James Madison Institute in Florida. His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, and numerous other publications.

William Mattox

William Mattox is the director of the Marshall Center for Educational Options at the James Madison Institute in Florida. His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, and numerous other publications.

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