Families Testify on ESAs for Pa. Education Committees

Pennsylvania’s House and Senate Education Committees held a hearing on education savings accounts (ESAs)—flexible spending accounts parents use to design a student-centered educational experience. Video of the hearing is available here, which featured testimony from parents who support ESAs as the best way to help children meet their full potential.

Rosemarie Mann, mother of five from Lancaster, explained to lawmakers the challenge of raising three adopted boys with special needs. Her youngest son, Na’eem, suffered a near fatal brain injury at 10 months of age which required emergency treatment. At the age of 3, Na’eem suffered from seizures and did not receive adequate support in community preschool. Na’eem was not making academic, social, or emotional progress—and Rosemarie decided she had no choice but to quit her job and care for her son full-time.

Although Na’eem qualified for a range of services through the local school district, the system was not working for him. As Rosemarie puts it:

The issue was not that the services were unavailable or he was not eligible. The issue was not lack of funding. The issue was not a lack of ability to navigate the system. The failures were based on: wrong environment…too many supports delivered by too many professionals…and a lack of flexibility in the use of resources.

Ultimately, Rosemarie decided that homeschooling would be the best option. This, too, presented challenges:

I would be not only the home school supervisor, but also the rehabilitation therapists, therapeutic support staff, personal care aide, and nurse. I was not employed so this created a financial hardship for us and our debt increased due to the cost of education supplies and curriculum. The situation also took a toll on our family as a unit.

In additional testimony provided to the committee, Rosemarie demonstrates how prohibitively costly it can be to provide appropriate care for a child with special needs. Of course, this is where ESAs can be a lifeline for parents. Parents of children with special needs in other states are using ESAs to offset these high costs and design a customized educational plan. Rosemarie explained that an ESA program can prevent students from “falling through cracks”—as her son almost did.

The committee also heard testimony from Shannon and Robert Lawson—parents with first-hand experience regarding the need for expanding educational options in Pennsylvania. The Lawsons are fortunate to benefit from the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, which allowed their oldest daughter to transfer from Harrisburg public school—where she was struggling—to Harrisburg Christian School. It was at the new school where Shannon’s daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia. Shannon explains that the teachers at Harrisburg Christian School did something she didn’t think was possible:

They cultivated in [my daughter] a love for reading and taught her strategies on how to process reading for her specific difficulty. And amazingly, it worked. Today my daughter loves to read and write to no end. If you ask her what she wants to become when she grows up, she will give you a huge smile and tell you she wants to become an author. This has only happened because we could put her in a school that made it their goal to make her successful, despite the challenges. Because of the school district we live in, I'm afraid of what might have happened if she hadn't been given that opportunity.

The Lawsons support ESAs because they want to see other Pennsylvania children have the same opportunities as their daughter.