Hope We Didn’t Have Before: A School Choice Family’s Story
We interviewed an Arizona parent about her family’s journey from unsettling diagnoses to thriving students using an ESA
In today’s EdChoice Chat, our CRM and Email Marketing Manager Abby Hayes chats with Jenny Clark about her family’s experience with Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the nation’s oldest education savings account (ESA) program. She talks about her sons’ specific challenges and how the ESA is helping them thrive.
Our Podcast Transcribed
Abby Hayes: Welcome to EdChoice Chats. My name is Abby Hayes, I am the CRM and email marketing manager here at EdChoice, and today I’m chatting with a parent from Arizona. Her name is Jenny Clark, and she and her family are currently using Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to get their kids the education that they need. So, here’s our interview with Jenny.
Hey, Jenny, how’s it going?
Jenny Clark: Hi. Fine, thanks for having me.
Abby Hayes: Yeah, thanks for joining us, we really appreciate your time.
Jenny Clark: Absolutely.
Abby Hayes: So, do you want to just dive in? Just tell us about, how did your family come by getting an ESA, and what’s it doing for you guys?
Jenny Clark: Sure. Well, we had our older children evaluated in our local school district. This has been about a year and a half or so now. And we suspected they might have some learning challenges or some developmental issues. One of my children had been in early intervention and needed some other speech and occupational therapies. But we just thought maybe there was something more going on.
So, after that evaluation, which was a kind of a long and difficult, lengthy process, we found out that our two oldest boys, now seven and nine, had severe dyslexia and dysgraphia.
Abby Hayes: Oh, wow.
Jenny Clark: Dysgraphia is for the handwriting.
Abby Hayes: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jenny Clark: And we were really surprised to find out that our local school district did not offer any services in the entire district for kids that were in situations such as ours. So we ended up keeping them at home and doing an online charter school for about a year, and then after the charter school, we found out about the ESA program right around that time, and we applied for the Empowerment Scholarship Account, and our kids have been on that for just a couple of months now, almost four months.
Abby Hayes: Okay, wow. That’s really cool.
Jenny Clark: Yeah.
Abby Hayes: So what would it have been like if you had stayed in the public school district? I mean, would they have just had to kind of struggle through, or what did the school tell you? I’m curious about that.
Jenny Clark: Yeah, that’s a great question. They would have had to just struggle through. The school said basically, “We can offer your children 30 minutes of reading help twice a week.”
And we had done so much research at that point, you know, through all these meetings, we said, “Wait a second. Dyslexic and dysgraphic kids don’t need just reading help. They need actual programs that remediate the dyslexia. And these programs take 30 minutes to an hour every single day. That’s kind of key. And it takes a few years.”
And they just said, “You know, we’re not set up for that. We just can’t offer that.”
So with the Empowerment Scholarship, we are able to buy the curriculum, the dyslexic-specific curriculum that our children need, in a variety of different subjects for reading and for math and other things. And we are also able to pay for tutors, speech therapists. One of my sons is currently seeing another speech therapist with the Empowerment Scholarship.
It just opens up opportunities for parents and for kids that they may not have or receive in a traditional public school environment. We are just so thankful. We would have had to, most likely, just figure out some sort of way to pay for all of these therapists and tutors on our own, since of course, insurance often doesn’t cover these types of things. We just cannot say enough amazing things about Empowerment Scholarships and how they benefit children.
Abby Hayes: That’s awesome. So, tell me about your experience with the online charter. What was that like? I’m just curious about that, too.
Jenny Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we really loved the online charter program that we were in here in Arizona. It was called Sequoia Choice Online. They were extremely flexible in understanding the needs of our kids. We were able to make accommodations for our children while they were in the online charter school. And we were able to get different curriculum also approved for our children during that time.
We were able to say, “Hey, look, this grammar curriculum, reading curriculum is not really dyslexic-specific. Can we provide all of the information and curriculum and details for this other curriculum that we’re using, dyslexic-specific curriculum, and have that count toward these hours?” And they were more than willing to accommodate.
We actually have referred them to dozens of other families. We know so many other families that have used them, either before ESA or if they leave the ESA program, because of course, you have to choose one or the other—a public school or the ESA scholarship. But we were very, very pleased with our online charter school.
Abby Hayes: Very cool. So what does your typical school day look like now? Are you using something for sort of a base level curriculum and then adding these other services on top of that?
Jenny Clark: Yes, yes. So, we have several different base level curriculums, like you stated, and then we add other services on top of that—extracurriculars, things like that. So, with the Empowerment Scholarship, we’re kind of in a new category, if we don’t choose to put our kids in private school.
With Empowerment Scholarships, of course, you can choose a private school that works for your child. Right now, there weren’t any private schools that currently worked with dyslexic children in the ways that we needed. So we are ESA-educating parents with a child in the home. So we’re in a new category, but we do all of our foundational subjects. We do our reading, or grammar, math, and then we do science and history.
For example, with our history curriculum, we are able to get all of the books, basically, on an audio CD version. They allow that. So in addition to reading to our kids while they’re remediating their dyslexia, because reading is such a struggle, and it’s just so hard for them to want to do school when they just get anxious about reading. So they’re able to listen to the audio of the textbook while they’re doing their worksheets, or while they’re working on their projects. It’s just a flexibility that we wouldn’t have for our kids in all subjects, if they were in a traditional classroom environment. And then of course, we do other activities like a P.E. group and things like that during the week.
Abby Hayes: Very cool. Can you tell me about the experience of applying for the ESA? What does that look like?
Jenny Clark: Sure. The application process was a little bit difficult, but not unmanageable. There’s a lot of great resources out there through other ESA parents. They actually have a really wonderful Facebook group, both for parents who are applying and then another group for parents who are actually in the program, that might have different questions. So the process was a little bit difficult, but not impossible. You basically have to provide certain pieces of documentation, of course, to show that you are an Arizona resident, and then that you meet one of the qualifying categories.
One of the qualifying categories is of course, that your child has a special need, which means you have to provide a MET report or an IEP from a public school. And then you have to have met, in Arizona, a hundred days or an hours equivalency, if the school is online, that’s what we had, to show that you are transferring from a public school. So, some kids will have that very easily, because they transferred from a traditional district or charter school, and then other families might have to provide the hours documentation like we did.
Abby Hayes: Okay. But charter schools also count in that requirement?
Jenny Clark: Yes. So, the ESA scholarship in Arizona is for, basically what we call switchers, kids that are switching out of the public school system, which is district or charter.
Abby Hayes: Okay. So, then tell me about, how do you go about finding and paying for the services that you’re using the ESA for? Services and curricula.
Jenny Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Right, well, a lot of families might already be using some of these tutors or therapists, but the way the program works, and in order to protect taxpayers, we can only use services with our ESA scholarship funds that are approved, and tutors and therapists that either have a degree or a qualification, certification, or credential. That is one aspect of the program that can prove to be difficult for parents, is making sure that they have all the documentation that they need, because we have to provide a receipt for every single expense, and documentation with a certificate or a degree every single quarter that we utilize any services.
So we really use the ESA families Facebook group a lot, and we say, “Hey, we’ve got this great speech pathologist. She’s got her degree in this.
This is her certification. She’s got openings.” And parents learn a lot about some of the services that they need through networking, basically.
Sometimes our current service providers will qualify, and other times they don’t, so we have to switch or pay separately, basically.
Abby Hayes: Okay. So when you’re paying for the services, do you get an actual debit card? Like, I know with my HSA for health accounts, you can pay for services upfront, or you can pay for them yourself and then get reimbursed. So how does that work with the ESA?
Jenny Clark: Sure. Well, in Arizona, you are approved under the Empowerment Scholarship for a certain amount of money based on your child’s disability. Of course, there’s typical children who receive the scholarship, and they receive the lowest award amount, and then the amounts go up depending on the learning disability or diagnosis.
The funds are deposited quarterly onto a debit card for the parents to manage. And the card will only work at places with specific, what’s called MCC codes, or merchant credit codes, and that’s in order to protect taxpayers, of course, to make sure that cards can’t be used outside of the guidelines and the statute or the Department of Education handbook.
So then we use that card for those services, and sometimes we can, if they’ve got an office and it’s doctors’ type, therapists’ office, it’s easy to get the card to work. Other times we have to work with some of these vendors in actually helping them change their MCC code, even working with the Department of Education to make sure that our cards will be approved for purchases.
So sometimes that can be a challenge, but once a vendor is certified and approved, then they’re in the system, they can accept payments, and everything is a lot easier after that.
Abby Hayes: Okay. So, have you had to go through that with some of your additional services?
Jenny Clark: Yes.
Abby Hayes: That sounds like a big process.
Jenny Clark: We have, yeah. And it’s one of those, with one of our teachers that does piano lessons and music type therapy, we had to kind of work with her on that. Of course, she has a degree in music, and so she’s just wonderful. We had to kind of walk her through those steps. That can be difficult also, because sometimes you have really amazing tutors and therapists that are kind of like, “Wait a second, this sounds confusing or complicated,” and you have to really educate them and work with them so that they can become approved vendors or therapists.
But it’s worth it in the end. We kind of chuckle as ESA parents because the guidelines are really, really specific, and people are like, “Oh, that must be great that you get to utilize funds in all these different things.”
And we say, “Hold on a second. We just got approved this year to use funds on educational field trips, but unfortunately, we have a running list of maybe now only five places that we can use our Empowerment Scholarship Account card at because of how their merchant credit card system is set up.”
So that’s a little bit of a challenge.
Abby Hayes: So it’s kind of an evolving process.
Jenny Clark: It’s an evolving process, and parents in the program here in Arizona have been just really amazing, even before we got into the program, really advocating for themselves and working hard with the Department of Education and vendors, and they continue to do that, which has been excellent.
Abby Hayes: Very cool. So, are your kids enjoying it? It sounds like it’s going well, they’re really thriving?
Jenny Clark: Yes, our kids are enjoying it, they’re doing amazing. We’ve been using the Barton, it’s called Barton Reading and Spelling, it’s a dyslexic-specific curriculum that’s just incredible. It’s hard for anybody, no matter what challenges that your child has, to even sometimes talk about it, because you’re either going through a really difficult time trying to figure things out, and that’s emotional. Or you’re going through a great time, which is, I feel like we’re in a sweet spot right now where our kids are doing really well and working through some of their issues.
And that kind of makes you emotional, too, because you just feel so happy for them, and you feel so hopeful for them. I feel like we’re a little bit in that sweet spot right now, where our two oldest are just starting to read. We’ve been doing these programs, we started some of these programs before they were on ESA, so we’re about a year into it now. You just have hope that you didn’t have before, when people were telling you, “No, no,” and, “Sorry,” and, “We don’t have this, we don’t have that.”
And now it’s like all of our answers are, “Yes, we have this,” and, “Yes, you can do this,” and, “Yes, you can help your child.” It puts a whole new spin on how you view your child and their educational abilities and their future, to be quite honest.
Abby Hayes: That’s awesome. So kind of along that note, what are you required to report back to the state as far as, “We’re doing this and there’s progress being made.” What requirements are there?
Jenny Clark: In Arizona, there aren’t any requirements regarding us reporting back. The parents are the sole manager of their child’s education when it comes to the Empowerment Scholarship. We’ve been in the program, like I said, just a short period of time now, so there might be some other guideline that I’m unaware of, but currently right now, they do not control what curriculum we choose, what therapists or tutors we choose.
That’s in the hands of the parent to manage, which, sometimes people go, “Oh, wait a second, that sounds kind of … I’m not sure about that.” But when it comes down to it, nobody cares more about the education of their child than the parents, right? Than the families that utilize the scholarship.
Abby Hayes: Sure.
Jenny Clark: And so, I used to be kind of nervous to share that with people, but then I realized, “Wait a second, this is a really amazing, beautiful thing that our children have that they wouldn’t have otherwise if they were in a traditional school environment, public school environment.”
So I’m excited to share with other parents, and I think that inherently, most parents know that their children are unique and that children have unique needs. I think other parents get excited when they hear about the things that our children have that maybe sometimes they wish that their kids had access to as well.
But currently right now, we don’t have to report anything. The one thing we do have to make sure of is that the things that we are purchasing, the things that we are doing, the therapies that we are using, are all approved and meet the guidelines that are in the law and in the Department of Education handbook. So, you know, when we purchase books or things like that, they have to be age-specific, generally related to the grade of the child, things like that.
Abby Hayes: Okay, that totally makes sense. So, what advice would you give to parents who, first let’s talk about parents who already live in an ESA state and are maybe looking at trying to qualify their child for an ESA. I know from our research, a lot of ESA families are using the programs to go to traditional private schools, so maybe it looks a little bit different, it looks a lot different for your family. So, if somebody’s trying to put this together, it sounds a little bit overwhelming to me as the parent of a first grader thinking through what that might look like for our family. So what advice would you give?
Jenny Clark: My advice would be just to not give up, to ask questions, and to put the work in on the front end, as completely exhausting and overwhelming, and even sometimes stressful as it might feel. Once you put that work in on the front end, the payoff down the road is just so amazing for your kids.
I remember a year and a half ago, once we got this diagnosis, and we kind of knew about ESA and we were thinking about switching to the charter. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is a year and a half, a two year process, away. How can we …” and it just felt so daunting. But then you realize, but if this is really deep down what our kids need, if they’re going to need these therapies, they’re going to need these tutors, then we just need to push forward and do it and just take it one day at a time.
I will say, in Arizona, from the private school perspective, out of the top ten private schools in Arizona who receive ESA scholarships or ESA students, nine of those are specifically geared towards families with special needs. So just remember that there are options out there. Not every ESA parent has to put their kid into a home educating environment. There are great private schools out there that can help parents through that process.
One of my girlfriends, just this past year, had said, “We heard about ESA and we weren’t sure, but we finally just went ahead and pulled our son and put him into an autism-specific academy here in Arizona, and we wish we would have done it five years ago.”
And that’s the kind of stuff that you hear that encourages you to the point where you want to keep helping other families, keep encouraging them to advocate for themselves, because nobody cares more about your child than you do. So to press on, really, to not grow weary and to keep pressing on, because it’s worth it in the end.
Abby Hayes: That’s awesome. So it sounds like your advice might be kind of similar for families who are in states going, “We don’t have an ESA and we’d really like to have one.” I know you maybe weren’t in on the process of getting an ESA in Arizona and talking to different people about that, but what would you advise to parents who don’t have that option right now?
Jenny Clark: I would advise those parents to band together with other like-minded families and to contact and reach out to other states that have done it well, because I think they might be surprised how quickly and how effective they can be as parents advocating for themselves, for their children, for their education. Again, I think it’s one of those things that, deep down, parents know that school choice works.
They know that kids have specific needs that aren’t getting met in traditional school environments, and that they’ll never know if they don’t start. And even if it’s something where their own child might only be able to access a program for a few years, just think about all of the other children that, down the road, can benefit from these programs like my family.
I mean, ESA in Arizona has been around for seven years, and I am so grateful for the people who, seven and eight years ago, pushed hard to bring ESA to Arizona, because now our kids are thriving because of it. So, just to go for it, basically, to not let anything stand in your way, because sooner or later, it can happen.
Abby Hayes: That’s awesome. Well, thanks so much for your time today. Is there anything else that you’d like to leave us with?
Jenny Clark: No, no, this has been great. I really appreciate you letting me share about the program. Thank you so much.
Abby Hayes: Sure. Thanks a lot for your time. We really appreciate it.
Jenny Clark: Okay, bye-bye.
Abby Hayes: Thanks for joining us for today’s episode of EdChoice Chats. I hope that you enjoyed listening to our interview with Jenny. I really enjoyed speaking with her.
Please subscribe to us on SoundCloud, iTunes, or Stitcher. Follow us on social media at @EdChoice on Twitter, and sign up for our e-mail at our website at www.EdChoice.org.