Empowering Parents of Students with Special Needs

Friends thought Dorothy Famiano was nuts when she decided to adopt two toddlers with special needs. She didn’t listen to the naysayers. Today Nicholas, who is confined to a wheelchair due to spina bifida, and Danielle, who has autism and cerebral palsy, are thriving teenagers.

Dorothy credits Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account (ESA) program for children with special needs. Nicholas and Danielle spent several years in the public school system, but it was not a good fit for them. Thanks to the Gardiner Scholarship, Dorothy is able to homeschool both children and give them the individual attention they need.

As Dorothy puts it, “They have gifts that aren’t necessarily discovered in a classroom setting. I saw that potential in them from the first time I met them. The success my children are enjoying is due to the fact the Gardiner Scholarship is geared towards each child’s strength. It’s the personalized learning experience that has made it so successful. A lot of people don’t understand this.”

Thousands of Pennsylvania students with special needs will have similar opportunities if Representative Judy Ward has anything to say about it. Rep. Ward recently introduced HB 2228, which would allow parents of students with special needs to open education savings accounts (ESAs) for their children. The state would deposit a portion of the state’s per pupil education subsidy into each account, which parents could use for tuition, special needs services, curriculum, and more.

The goal behind HB 2228 is similar to Senate Bill 2 – empower parents to provide their children with the education that best suits them. By allowing state education dollars to follow the student rather than the school building, ESAs bring education into the 21st century. The Senate is expected to act on SB 2 this spring, bringing us one step closer to this educational innovation.

People demand choice in almost every area of life; education should not be the exception. Six states have already enacted ESAs and at least 21 states are considering them. Parental surveys have shown high levels of satisfaction with parents who are using ESAs to customize their children’s education.

Nicholas and Danielle’s homeschool evaluator says the Gardiner Scholarship “has been life-changing for them.”

With ESA legislation in both the House and Senate, the momentum towards parental empowerment in education is building. Pennsylvania legislators have the chance to enact a life-changing program. They should take that chance.