State leaders should seriously consider Special Education Savings Accounts to better serve Minnesota’s most vulnerable students

Governor Walz’s recently updated order that elementary schools can begin in-person or hybrid learning starting January 18, 2021 is still leaving students behind.

For father Terry Otremba, getting his 13-year-old daughter Addison back into school is a must, he shared with Fox 9. Born with a rare chromosome abnormality, Addison has struggled under a full distance learning model. Walz’s changes didn’t mention students with special needs, which “disappointed” Otremba, Fox 9 continued.

“I’m hoping what Governor Walz said today about getting them back in the classroom about the elementary kids fits in with special education as well,” said Otremba. “Get them in the class as soon as possible, because they are dying right now in some sense.”

A KARE 11 investigation found that other students requiring special services aren’t getting the help they need either and share a similar story to Addison’s. Many of the one-on-one services students receive in school can’t be provided while they are home.

But state leaders have an opportunity to help families access the special education-related services they need, no matter what learning model schools are in.

Through the federal CARES Act, Minnesota received $140,137,253 in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grant funds in May. These grants are awarded by the state’s Department of Education to districts and public schools to address the impact of COVID-19 on elementary and secondary schools and keep learning going. According to a new online portal launched by the U.S. Department of Education, only 0.2 percent of these funds had been reported spent through September 30.

Minnesota could use a portion of these funds to create special education savings accounts geared toward students on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or receiving other special education-related services. This program would help parents access tutors, specialized therapists, or other assistance that a district under a distance learning model cannot provide. Because special education is often a big expense for districts, instructional assistance from a special education savings account could help alleviate some of that cost.

Mississippi has offered something similar for years. The state enacted the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program in 2015, which is an education savings account program that allows Mississippi students with special needs to receive a portion of their public funding in a government-authorized savings account with multiple uses.

Other states have also taken recent action to allocate education-related CARES Act funds to students and families to help them finance the learning option(s) that will meet their child’s needs.

Without exception, ESA funding per student is less than the state’s average per student funding. This saves taxpayers money while helping students access learning opportunities that they previously weren’t able to.