Save Our ESA: These kids are going to grow up to be productive citizens because of the ESA
“I’m a public school teacher and I got a $1,000 raise over 12 months this year. If the ESA program goes away, that $1,000 and so much more will be eaten up to provide my daughter an education that she can’t get right now in the public school.”
A love of education is what calls Keeba Smith of Laurel to the classroom. It is a love that was instilled in her by a long line of educators including her mother and her aunt, and it is that love that she has always hoped would be passed along to her students and to her own three children.
Yet early on, Keeba and her husband Myron recognized that their daughter Kee’undra was struggling in school.
“We realized there were issues in K4,” said Keeba. “To leave K4 in Laurel you have to be able to count to 100, and it took her a while.”
When Kee’undra moved to kindergarten in Jones County, her struggles grew. She had difficulty learning sight words which made it a challenge for her to pass.
“She had a great teacher who knew it was a struggle for her,” Keeba said. “She would know 20 sight words one day and the next day she may only know two. I felt like I was doing something wrong as a parent.”
The teacher in Keeba saw her daughter’s agony, but she could not help her.
“That was very hard to watch. You can see how most children learn,” she said, “but I just could not figure out how she learned.”
Both Kee’undra and her twin brother Myron received an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for speech. Keeba learned about the state’s Education Scholarship Account (ESA) from the children’s speech therapist in March of 2017. The ESA, a flexible spending account, would give her the ability to direct the state tax dollars allocated for each child’s education to a private school and services if she, as their parent, determined other options better suited their needs.
She applied for both of the children as well as her oldest child Keenan Breeland whose IEP was also created for speech. Due to limited space, they were placed in a lottery in June of that year. None of them received an ESA.
Identifying the problem
When Kee’undra got to first grade, Keeba went to her teachers in September and told them she knew something was going on and that she wanted to have her tested. Keeba suspected dyslexia.
“They told me to wait and see how she did, so we got to January and she was half a year behind her peers. Her teacher was doing interventions with her and doing everything she was supposed to, but it wasn’t helping.”
In the meantime, Keeba paid $400 out-of-pocket to have her daughter tested for dyslexia. Indeed, Kee’undra was diagnosed with dyslexia, and Keeba took that diagnosis to the school. However, the dyslexia classification was not added to her IEP.
“They did not give a reason, but I believe by her being classified they would have needed a dyslexic teacher,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of kids fall into that trap because the school system is limited. That’s not the district’s fault, but I feel bad because there are places where these kids could get help.”
Finding a better education setting
In December of 2017, Kee’undra received an ESA. Keeba immediately placed her at the 3-D School in Petal which is a school for children with dyslexia.
“It’s been amazing. Before it would take us all night to do homework – simple things. She would cry and hide, and now she loves school,” Keeba said. “She came home early on and told me, ‘Mom, I’m not by myself.’ I cried because she finally saw she could do it.”
The ESA could benefit more kids
Too often, Keeba has seen children in a public school classroom slip through the cracks because of limited resources within the district. She saw it in her own classroom with one particular student.
“He was trying so hard. Like Kee’undra, homework was a struggle for him. I’d try to help him with the ways I’d learned to help Kee’undra, but it was difficult because it was not implemented in his other classes. I know that child is going to struggle, and that’s frustrating to see as a teacher because I know the signs but could not say that the child had dyslexia. I went through the proper channels, but knew he was going to fail because teachers aren’t trained to know how to teach children with dyslexia.
“I would love for the legislature to fully fund education. We need it, but if my child can’t get what she needs at a public school, she deserves to go where she can get it.” Keeba added, “She’s not going to go to this school for the rest of her life. We are coming back and going back to public education. That’s where both of her brothers are, and they are doing well.”
Save Our ESA
For now, the ESA has helped Keeba provide the education that best fits her daughter’s needs. It’s an education that comes with a price tag of $9,000 per year in tuition with about $6,700 of that covered by the ESA.
“It’s a godsend. It feels like a burden has been lifted off of us. Without the ESA it would have been a struggle financially. Our resources are limited, and it would have placed a financial strain on us.”
Yet Keeba is concerned that the ESA program could end in 2020 without action from state legislators to preserve this lifeline for her daughter.
The program, which was passed as a five-year pilot program in 2015, is utilized by hundreds of students with special needs all over the state, and hundreds more are on the wait list. Parents report a significant increase in satisfaction with their child’s education after receiving an ESA. However, the program will expire on June 30, 2020, unless legislators extend 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.
“Our legislators have to look at the ESA program not as just money but as taking care of kids with special needs,” she said. “You’re taking it away from kids who really need it and from families who are using it to do something good for their children. These kids are going to grow up to be productive citizens because of the ESA. I’m a public school teacher and I got a $1,000 raise over 12 months this year. If the ESA program goes away, that $1,000 and so much more will be eaten up to provide my daughter an education that she can’t get right now in the public school.”
Click here to sign the petition to #SaveOurESA.