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Shaina Cavazos

Lawmaker looks to revive ‘education saving accounts’ for students with disabilities

A plan that would give Indiana families more control over their child’s school funding has failed repeatedly to gain traction with state lawmakers — but its persistent supporters have plans to advance it again in 2019.

Rep. Jack Jordan, a Republican from Bremen, said Thursday he’s considering new legislation that would allow “education savings accounts” for families of students with special needs. The controversial program, which exists in some form in six states, goes a step further than Indiana’s current voucher system, which allows the state to direct funding to a private school of a parent’s choosing.

The savings accounts represent the next frontier of school choice policy for Indiana. They could allow parents to use the state education dollars to support any therapy or educational option they choose, such as equine therapy, homeschooling materials, or private school tuition.

“I don’t know how a school system can figure out what the therapy needs to be for that individual kid, so I think the parent needs to be able to direct that,” Jordan said. “Why should they have to pay for it when the state has funds where they pay for their education?”

But it has been difficult to convince Indiana legislative leaders — even ardent school choice supporters — that it’s a smart move, given the logistics associated with implementing and overseeing such a program. Bills proposed in 2016 and 2017 did not advance. The next legislative session begins in January.

Jordan said that after listening to testimony from parents and educators at study committee focused on children with autism on Thursday, he became convinced that savings accounts make sense. He said he’s in the early stages of exploring how such a program could be successfully implemented in Indiana.

“Before I go jump in at full-speed ahead, I need to look at what is really happening in other states,” he said. “I want to see if it works or hasn’t worked.”

Education savings accounts have been gaining attention across the U.S. for years. Similar programs have passed state legislatures and are operating in Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, and Mississippi. A program in Nevada is on hold as it faces legal challenges.

Advocates have called education savings account programs the purest form of school choice. But critics of the savings accounts say they would divert money away from public schools and that there aren’t sufficient regulations to protect against fraud and abuse.

Although attempts to establish education savings accounts in Indiana have been met with resistance or hesitance, it’s not unusual that programs like this take time to get off the ground. Indiana’s voucher program was decades in the making and only started in 2011. Charter schools first popped up in the state in 2001, but laws that allowed them to expand in earnest came a decade later.

About 35,000 students use public money to pay private school tuition through the voucher program, and more than 44,000 attend public charter schools.