Scholarships help families with special needs education

Arizona ranked No. 1 for the best state to live in because of how well state Medicaid programs serve those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to a study released this year by United Cerebral Palsy.

But the state fails to make the top 10 list of the best states for special education services from the organization Autism Speaks. But there are state-funded scholarships to help families.

Jessica Anderson and Chris Anderson have two young daughters named Sheridan and Mackenzie, who have Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“Both girls are diagnosed with Autism,” Jessica Anderson said. “Mackenzie was diagnosed about 2 1/2, almost 3 years old. Sheridan was diagnosed about the same age.”

The type of education Autistic children will thrive in is unique to each child. The Anderson’s say their children have very different needs.

“Mackenzie, is in a self-contained classroom at a public school, and Sheridan is more regular education with resource pull out,” Jessica Anderson said. “In the beginning for Mackenzie it was a little rough, trying to figure out what classroom would best fit her. There was a lot of trial and error. Probably about first grade is when we found a classroom that was really beneficial.”

“We were told at a very young age that Mackenzie would never say, ‘I love you’ and we wanted to prove everybody wrong,” father James Anderson said.

Director Debra Watland of the Sierra Academy in Scottsdale, which provides education for students with special needs, said she believes that early intervention is key and that taking advantage of the empowerment scholarship is a great resource.

Watland said, “A lot of parents are able to access the empowerment scholarship account to provide those funds so that they can make the educational decisions rather than the public schools making the decisions for them.”

The Empowerment Scholarship is state funded. To be eligible, the school district has to identify the child as having a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the child has to be entering kindergarten, and both the child and parents have to be Arizona residents.

According to the Friedman Foundation, Arizona was the first state to enact an education savings account. 2,499 students are receiving the scholarship as of fall 2015. This accounts for only 22% of students eligible statewide.