Families with special needs students who apply for ESAs will find that their ESA funding may not cover all of the expense of therapies, tutors, and assessments that their student may require. When a special needs student is enrolled in a public school and has received an Individual Education Plan (IEP) the school receives a lot more per pupil funding. They use this additional funding to cover the additional expenses that a special needs student requires. But a special needs ESA student typically does not receive extra funding, and what they do receive is oftentimes not enough to cover their needs.

In Arizona, where ESA funding first became available only for special needs students in 2015, it became a way for public schools to off-load their expensive IEP students. Once a parent committed to accepting ESA funding for a school year, they could not receive any therapy, classes, or assistance from their district public school for that year. Many special needs parents were unable to afford the cost of therapy and tutoring and were unable to help their student on their own. Because they had accepted the ESA funding, they were unable to place their child back in public school for that school year. They found themselves in a situation that was detrimental to their special needs student. Worse still, if their student failed to make academic progress in that year, it was the parents who bore the responsibility for the failure. Blame shifting helped schools whose low ratings were threatening their accreditation and funding.

What about free money for private school? Private school tuition is especially high for a special needs child. A poor or average family who cannot afford private school would still be unable to afford private school. A wealthy family who can already afford private school tuition would essentially be getting a state-funded discount on tuition. This is exactly what happened in Arizona. Wealthy families benefited the most from the ESA program.  Arizona’s House Minority Leader had this to say about Arizona’s ESA program: “Two years after state lawmakers granted children from poor-performing schools the right to attend private schools at taxpayer expense, most children using the program are leaving high-performing public schools in wealthy districts. It essentially gives the wealthy a discount at a private school.”