Prior to January 27, I was like every other parent going about my daily activities of caring for my children. I was never an activist about school choice. That changed when the Arizona Department of Education illegally leaked data containing personal information, including my child’s diagnosis. I started researching the data leak and the organization who received it. Their motives are clearly political in nature against school voucher programs. It was evident this is a political lightning rod similar in nature to gun control or abortion rights. They claim to care about our children, but I question their true motives. Now that my family’s privacy has been breached, I have chosen to speak out and challenge politicians and political activist organizations to do better.
Let me explain why I am passionate about the ESA program. Our child from an early age has shown the need for special assistance such as speech and occupational therapies. We enrolled our child in a school district’s program that provides a developmentally appropriate setting for children who have been identified with special needs. In other words, we enrolled our child in the public school’s early prevention program. Within months, the teacher and counselor at the school told us our child was a behavioral problem. We asked them to test our child for autism. After their reluctance and debate they relented to the testing. The school ultimately diagnosed our child with autism. However, they offered no therapies or tailored classes to help. We were basically told by the school district that our child will be fine, and they will find an elementary school for our child. It took several months involving attorneys to get the Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, updated with the school district’s diagnosis. It became clear that public school was not going to help our child and we needed to seek other schools.
One criteria of the ESA program is to serve children with disabilities. It gives parents who qualify the power to decide what is best for their child. It allowed us to send our child to Scottsdale Children’s Institute (SCI) where they specialize in grade school readiness for children with special needs. SCI provided a customized program that public school was not able to offer. Our child began to thrive at SCI and when it came time for our child to go to grade school, the staff at SCI worked with us to find the best school for our child. We toured schools across Phoenix including special need schools, mainstream private schools, and the options at his initial school district. Our concerns about the school district was our child either had to go to a self-contained class which we didn’t think would be challenging or mainstream class with 25-30 students which presented other problems. Ultimately, we decided to send our child to private school with a small mainstream class. They teach a grade level ahead and our child, who was once labeled a behavioral problem by public school, is excelling. Without ESA, our child would have struggled in public school to be successful.
There is a lot of rhetoric from politicians and political activist organizations about ending ESA and sending those funds back to public school. However, they never offer plans about how they will better serve children with special needs and disabilities. Personally, I am not against public school and in fact my other child is thriving there. Public school is designed for your typically developing child. However, public school is not designed to meet the requirements of children with special needs and disabilities because these children vary so differently. It is impossible for a public school to provide all the services these children require, and parents must have choices.
Lastly, I ask the organizations who received our data illegally to hold themselves to a higher standard. Allow independent auditors to see where data containing privacy violations have been sent and confirm this data has been destroyed. There is no reason your organizations need to know our child’s diagnosis or our contact information. Stop using ESA children as your political hostage.
Erik Ma is the father of an Empowerment Scholarship Account Student.