Save Our ESA: “Some of us just can’t put our kids in public school. We have to have a choice.”
“The ESA is a blessing. It’s very, very scary to think that it could be taken away. I have major worries and fears that something is going to happen, and we won’t be able to send him to his school anymore.”
A parent’s love knows no sacrifice, and that is evidenced by the actions taken by Mark and Amanda Thornton of Canton for their five-year-old son Riley.
Riley was born premature, weighing a mere two pounds.
“He was on oxygen for the first two months and had a lot of developmental delays at the time,” said Amanda. “He didn’t sit up until he was one, and he didn’t walk until he was two.”
As he got older, Riley began to experience intense meltdowns.
“They were so intense he would end up hitting his head on the ground. The doctors kept telling me that the things I was noticing were due to Riley’s developmental delays, but I knew it was more than that,” Amanda said.
Determined to help her son, Amanda sought doctor after doctor until finally Riley was diagnosed with autism.
“When we got the diagnosis, I mourned it,” she said, “but at the same time I was happy to be getting somewhere.”
Riley’s doctor sat Amanda down and explained to her that she was about to embark on the fight of her life.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You are going to have to advocate. You are going to have to fight, fight, fight for his whole life. You’re going to have to fight especially in school, so be ready. Do your research.’ I jumped headfirst into learning as much as I could,” Amanda said.
Amanda learned about the state’s Education Scholarship Account program from Riley’s therapist and immediately went to work gathering the required materials to apply. The Education Scholarship Account is designed to give parents of students with special needs the ability to direct their state tax dollars to the educational setting that works best.
“I told his therapist that I didn’t know what to do because I had been searching for a school for him. We are not in a good district, so I was looking for another option,” Amanda said. “His therapist told us about the ESA and also about Spectrum Academy.”
Mark and Amanda applied for the ESA and were placed on the waitlist. They also toured the school, which is specifically for children with autism, and knew that was where Riley needed to be. But the cost was more than they could afford.
“There’s no way we could afford Spectrum Academy without the ESA,” she said.
Amanda began looking for other options for Riley. They were able to enroll him in a public preschool in another county specifically for kids with special needs.
“Even in that school, their main focus was language and not so much behavior,” said Amanda. “Every day when I would pick him up, they were telling me what a rough day he had had. They’d tell me he had behavioral problems or that the day was awful.”
Amanda was discouraged knowing her son was not getting the education he deserved.
Riley gets an ESA
In February of 2019, Riley received an ESA, and Amanda immediately began looking for options.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said, “because Spectrum Academy had a wait list and he couldn’t get in at the time. I was so worried we were going to lose the ESA, but we needed it.”
The following week Amanda got a phone call from Spectrum Academy. There was an opening for Riley.
“The timing was a God thing,” she said. “We pulled him out of school and put him in Spectrum Academy, and it’s been life-changing. Public school was not working for Riley because of his aggression and behavior issues. He gets frustrated very easily, and that’s a problem in a public school setting.”
Hope at Spectrum Academy
At Spectrum Academy, Riley is learning how to communicate in an effort to prevent his meltdowns.
“Every day is a great day when I pick him up,” said Amanda.
Amanda began to wonder if Riley was even having meltdowns at school because of the positive response she was getting from his teachers.
“I asked them one day if he was having meltdowns, and they said, ‘Oh yeah. He has them often, but it’s not a big deal.’ That was amazing! They focus on behavior and they are trained for it. That’s exactly what Riley needs. If we weren’t at Spectrum, he’d be getting kicked out of school,” she said.
In the right setting, Amanda has found support, and Riley has found an environment in which he can flourish.
“They are a Godsend,” she said. “When we got there, we were having problems with Riley getting in the car at the end of the day. Three teachers were having to carry him to the car kicking and screaming because he did not want to get in the car.”
Through coaching and trial and error, the staff was able to get to the root of the issue.
“One day they asked me to wait and be the very last car in line for pick-up,” Amanda said.
“When I pulled up to pick him up, Riley got in the car with no trouble. We figured out that if he saw all of his friends leave first then he could leave, but if he left first, he was scared he was missing something. That was amazing. They wanted to figure out the problem, fix it, and help me learn how to handle it.
“Riley has to have one-on-one attention. He doesn’t do well if he doesn’t have it. He would fall between the cracks in a public school.”
Fear of Losing the ESA
Families like the Thorntons are concerned that the popular ESA program, passed as a five-year pilot program, will die this year without action from the state legislature to save it. So far, legislative efforts to keep the ESA program in place beyond 2020 have failed, leaving parents in the dark about their children’s futures.
“The ESA is a blessing. It’s very, very scary to think that it could be taken away. I have major worries and fears that something is going to happen, and we won’t be able to send him to his school anymore,” Amanda said.
Amanda, diagnosed with lupus, is unable to work, so the family relies solely on her husband’s income. They have made great sacrifices for the sake of their son. Amanda gave up her own health insurance for a period of time to pay for therapies for Riley. They live in a small apartment in Canton and have given up their dream of buying a house for now due, in large part, to Riley’s medical expenses.
“Buying a house is not out of the question, but it’s just not a priority right now. We need this ESA. We are not a rich family,” she said. “My husband makes enough for us to survive, but he has two other sons who also have needs.”
Without the ESA it would be a struggle for the Thorntons to afford Riley’s $1,500 per month tuition costs. Amanda is prayerful that legislators will see the value in this program for families like hers.
“It may be a small program to legislators, but it’s huge to us,” she said. “To families who are working hard and have special needs kids, it is everything. If you don’t have a special needs child, it’s hard to understand, but a program like this helps us so much. Some of us just can’t put our kids in public school. We have to have a choice.”
Click here to sign the petition to #SaveOurESA.