April 6, 2020
By Jonathan Butcher

The coronavirus outbreak will severely strain household and government finances and restrict individual opportunities for success. Yet last week, Utah Governor Gary Herbert squandered a chance to ease both problems.

Governor Herbert vetoed a proposal that would have offered education savings account-style scholarships (ESAs) to Utah children with unique needs such as autism, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy. Similar to the accounts in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee, Utah’s proposal would have allowed eligible children to use multiple education products and services simultaneously. They would have been able to use an account to find education therapies, pay tuition at a private or online school, or even pay fees for a college entrance exam, to name a few possible uses.

With lean times ahead for school districts, finding cost-effective ways to help children with special needs—who often need intense assistance—will be critical. While some 18 states allow donors to contribute to nonprofit organizations that award K-12 private school scholarships, Utah’s accounts would have been the first such program in the country to use donations to scholarship organizations to fund ESAs for children with special needs. The proposal would have created a new way for states to partner with individuals and nonprofit organizations to offer learning opportunities to eligible students.

In his veto letter, the Governor said he has “concerns with the approach the bill takes to funding services” because of a new “cost to taxpayers.” Cue the analysts: The financial impact to the general fund for existing homeschool or private school students who use an account was not determined, but legislative staff estimated the tax credit accounts would have saved taxpayers $1,871 per child with special needs that chose an account instead of an assigned school.

Governor Herbert also said “special education federal law and best practice require that children with special needs be served whenever possible in an inclusive environment, alongside their typically developing peers.” Has he driven past a school recently? He announced the order to close schools until at least May—just three weeks before some high school graduations are scheduled.

The school shutdowns give families a unique opportunity to see how well their students have progressed in school and evaluate how the interventions inside and outside of class are helping their child. If the scholarship accounts became an option for Utah families, parents could focus decision-making on their child’s specific needs next year. Nothing will change for families that remain satisfied with their child’s traditional school experience, but for children struggling to succeed, the scholarship accounts would offer them a wide variety of learning options.

Malia Hudson, an Arizona parent and military service member on active duty, says that the accounts are helping her son, Mikey, even though his private school is temporarily closed. “With ESA, I can buy extra materials to supplement what the school sends home,” she says.

Mikey Hudson is flourishing with an education savings account (ESA).

Doctors diagnosed Mikey as being on the autism spectrum, and Malia says that even before school was closed, the accounts allowed her to “do more things outside his normal school day.” Malia says Mikey is “flourishing” with an account. “He went from struggling at a public school to straight A’s,” she says.

These are the opportunities that state lawmakers can offer parents and children today. Last month, Florida lawmakers sent a budget proposal to Governor Ron DeSantis that would make room for more ESAs for children with special needs. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey recently signed a proposal allowing students on tribal lands to continue using their accounts despite attempts by state bureaucrats to cut off student access.

Ideas like these give families hope during difficult times. Governor Herbert missed a chance to steward this precious resource—hope—for Utah families.

Jonathan Butcher is a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.

*This post has been updated for clarity.

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