Malachi’s School Choice Story
Just last year, 5-year-old Malachi’s home was an orphanage in Ethiopia, and he was unable to walk due to crippling spina bifida. Today, he lives in Florida with his new family, the Kuhns, where he is standing, walking, and singing Bruce Springsteen songs, according to this heartwarming story from Channel 10 News in Tampa Bay.
How did Malachi get the care he needed to begin walking? It took good luck, determination and love from his new parents, and a state-funded education savings account (ESA).
The Kuhns took a leap of faith when they adopted Malachi and took over his medical care, but when they got him to Florida, they realized there was yet another challenge: finding a school that would meet his needs. That’s when the Kuhns applied for the Gardiner Scholarship.
The Gardiner Scholarship, originally called the Personal Learning Scholarship Account, was established in 2014 to help students with intellectual or physical disabilities attend private schools in Florida. Scholarship amounts vary according to grade, county, and public school spending for special-needs students, but the state puts funds into a flexible-use spending account that can be used to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, therapy, and other state-approved services. To date, 5,844 students have benefitted from the program.
Missouri doesn’t have an ESA program to help special needs students (or any students, for that matter). Three states—Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi—operate ESA programs that are available to over 7,000 students. Nevada created an ESA program last year, but it has been suspended due to pending litigation. Tennessee is preparing to launch its program next January.
Although eligibility rules vary across these states—in Nevada, eligibility is (or would be) nearly universal—ESA programs allow parents to customize their child’s education and to access services they could not otherwise afford. For Malachi and the Kuhns, the Gardiner Scholarship funded important services to help him succeed in school. For the 13.4 percent of Missouri’s K-12 students with disabilities, an ESA could greatly improve their quality of education.
Creating an ESA program here in Missouri would maximize the effectiveness of public funds by allowing parents to decide what services their children need most. Whether the funds are used for therapy or tutoring, or even just saved for college, parents are the ones best equipped to determine how they should be spent.