Program for special needs students expected to double - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

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Program for special needs students expected to double

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Michelle Reese covers education for the Tribune and blogs about motherhood and family issues at Contact her at

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Posted: Friday, January 13, 2012 1:56 pm

The number of students receiving empowerment savings accounts could possibly double in less than a year, according to the Arizona Department of Education. Last spring, lawmakers approved the voucher-like program for students with special needs to provide parents more choices for their children, while also decreasing what Arizona pays for education, according to proponents.

Under the program, students with special needs who have been in a public school in the last year can receive a "savings account" that equals 90 percent of the cost the state is spending to educate him or her.

Those funds can then be used to fund private school tuition, home school curriculum, educational services or post-high school education. In return, the student must withdraw from public school.

In the fall, 75 accounts were awarded. Since then, according to the education department, four students have removed themselves from the program.

This month, for the spring semester, 79 accounts were approved from 131 applications.

Families may be unqualified if the student has not been in public school in the last year or does not meet the special needs outlined by statute.

Families that have been approved for the accounts have until Sunday to file an official pupil withdrawal form from their public school in order for funds to be disbursed, so its unclear yet how much funding will be given.

Awards for the spring will be cut in half because the school year is halfway complete. The highest award for the spring is $26,474.02 (which will be halved).

The lowest awarded is $1,621.01 (again, to be halved). The average award for the spring semester is just over $13,000, which would amount to $6,500.

The lowest account awarded this fall was about $1,900. The highest was $28,000. The average was $13,600, according to education department. Those dollars were for an entire school year.

The state funds school districts and charter schools based on the number of students attending class or enrolled.

For typical students, that number usually falls between about $4,500 and $6,000 per year. Special education students may require additional services, which cost more money.

State lawmakers previously set up school vouchers for special education and foster care children, but the state Supreme Court said that program was unconstitutional. Unlike vouchers, proponents say, the savings accounts can be used to fund a variety of educational expenses.

A legal complaint arguing against the savings accounts was filed in the fall by several public school groups, including the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association and Arizona Association of School Business Officials. There has not been a ruling yet on the case.

Contact writer: (480) 898-6549 or

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