March 26, 2020
By Jonathan Butcher
As parents and students go through the second week of coronavirus-related school closures, what was once known as “schooling” has become a scavenger hunt. Families and schools around the country are searching for web sites, e-books, and other tools to offer instruction to children while nearly every family is homebound.
All parents, teachers, and students are making adjustments during this period. Families using education savings accounts, however, are used to seeking out learning experiences that meet a child’s unique needs and then adjusting as circumstances change—so these parents and students are quickly adapting as the pandemic is forcing them to alter a student’s daily routine.
With an education savings account, a state deposits a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula in private account that parents use to buy education products and services for their student. Lawmakers in Arizona and four other states—Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee—have made accounts available to eligible families.
The Bradfords were among the first families to use an education savings account in North Carolina, and even now during the pandemic, the accounts are providing Liz and her daughter, Libby, significant flexibility. “The world has been turned upside down in her little mind,” Liz says, but the Bradfords continue to use Libby’s account to provide education therapies and even virtual instruction.
“After we had our first lesson with the speech therapist, Libby was thrilled. It shows her that there is some normalcy,” Liz says.
Libby, age 10, has beta-propeller protein-associated neurodegeneration, an extremely rare condition that confines her to a wheelchair. Libby communicates using a device that traces her eye movements. Remarkably, since she began using an account, she has started reading and even begun to spell words.
“The child is making some leaps and bounds that no one thought possible,” Liz says.
Now that teaching has moved online, “we’re making it work,” Liz says, “truly because we can make it work” with an account.
Wendy Smith* is making similar adjustments in Arizona using an account. “School-wise, I am spending more time with the kids doing educational games,” she says. She is still using traditional curricular materials such as Singapore math books, but she says, “we are taking the time we would have been using with driving and events and using it for family time.”
“Really, there is so much to do and try, we don’t have enough hours in the day for it all,” she says.
Meanwhile, like many traditional school families, the Bradfords continue to interact with Libby’s teachers with video chat programs and recorded lessons. “Teachers are available at a certain time [each day] to answer questions. Specifically for Libby, we adapt what they do,” Liz says.
The biggest challenge right now? “Having happy kids,” Liz says. “She thrives off the other kids and seeing them.”
Yet the accounts offer hope because Libby can continue participating in some of the critical parts of her routine. “She loves to learn for leaning’s sake, and she’s going to ride this out,” Liz says.
Wendy’s family is also optimistic. “It seems our typical school philosophy—to try new things, learn, and find excitement about the world around us with whatever brains and tools we have on hand—applies very well for times like COVID-19,” she says.
The accounts are helping families adjust even as school buildings are closed and families remain indoors for extended stretches of time. Parents and students need to be flexible as the news changes from day to day, and the accounts offer stability as families make decisions about online instruction and care for children with special needs.
Lawmakers in Arizona and around the U.S. should consider how education savings account families have adjusted so quickly to changes during the last two weeks and make traditional schooling look more like the versatile accounts. Policymakers should make sure education is even more flexible after the quarantine than it was during the pandemic.
*Name withheld due to the data breach that exposed Arizona education savings account families’ information.
Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.