Senate Bill 2695, The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, creates a pilot program to give parents the option of withdrawing their child from a public school and receiving an Education Scholarship Account (ESA) with $6,500 to help pay for educational expenses outside the traditional public school. Funds would be distributed through a debit card and used for private school tuition, educational therapies, and tutoring.
SB 2695 has twenty-six (26) separate ACCOUNTABILITY measures to ensure that taxpayer funds are protected.
1) Students must have an active Individualized Education Program (IEP) within the past 18 months are eligible.
2) The pilot program is limited to 500 students in the first year and an additional 500 each year thereafter.
Education Scholarship Account Card
3) Funds are provided through a debit card similar to the one used by teachers for their teacher supply funds.
4) The Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) will manage the cards.
5) The program will be administered by the Department of Education.
6) DFA will pre-authorize categories of educational service providers (such as tutors, therapists, schools, curricula sellers, etc.). The cards will not work at any other type of business. (Meaning: you can’t use it at a liquor store).
7) Funds are distributed in quarterly payments.
8) No new funds are deposited until previous expenditures have been reviewed.
9) Participants must keep and return receipts to ensure compliance with the program.
10) Tuition costs at an accredited private schools.
11) Participating schools must provide parents with details of the school’s programs, qualifications, experience, and capacities to serve students with disabilities.
12) Therapists, tutors, or educational service providers must be licensed and/ or certified.
13) Assistive technology must have been deemed essential by a licensed professional.
14) No sharing of money is allowed between a provider and a program participant.
15) There will be a phone/ Internet hotline for anonymous reporting of suspected abuses.
16) If suspicious expenditures appear, additional documentation will be required, and quarterly payments will be suspended until the issue is resolved.
17) If there is fraud, the student is disqualified from participation in the program and the student’s ESA is closed.
18) The same is true if parents unintentionally make impermissible purchases more than twice in a year, even if fraud is not present.
19) Three spending offenses within a consecutive three-year period shall disqualify the parent’s student from participating in the program.
20) Educational service providers can be removed and barred from the program if they are violating the law.
21) Abuse, fraud, or misuse will be reported to law enforcement officials.
22) ESAs will be audited annually.
23) Random audits will be performed throughout the year.
24) The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) shall prepare a biannual report beginning to assess the sufficiency of funding for ESAs and recommend any changes in state law or policy necessary to improve the program.
25) The bill includes a 5-year sunset provision, requiring the legislature to act to continue it.
26) Every 3 years a student must be re-evaluated to determine if they are still eligible.