Kevin: In recent years, school choices have become a growing issue among parents. A 2022 National School Choice Week survey found that more than half of parents were considering a different school for one of their children. In our shifting education landscape, some parents are turning away from public schools while others remain staunch advocates of traditional public education. But is it really just an either-or discussion? And how can our school systems serve all students regardless of need and ability? This is What I Want to Know. And today, I'm joined by Kayla Svedin to find out.
Kevin: Kayla Svedin is one of the founders of Empowered Arizona Families. Her unique story led her to start the nonprofit organization, which seeks to make sure every family has access to a school that works for their children. As a mother of four and staunch advocate for parent involvement in education, Kayla works to empower families to make informed decisions that are in the best interests of their kids. Kayla, welcome to the show.
Kayla: Thank you for having me. I was really excited to get this invitation.
Kevin: Well, I'm excited about you and your work. You have been a warrior for parents in Arizona for many years, and you do it all with four kids. The oldest is 11. First of all, how are they all doing? Because I know that your work was really based on supporting them.
Kayla: Yeah, absolutely. They're doing fantastic. We've got our three that are in school attending three different schools, though next year they will all be in one location, which I'm really excited about because gas is expensive, but they've had a really awesome year so far. My oldest, like you said, is 11. She's in sixth grade. Then I have my 7-year-old daughter who is in second grade, and then my kindergartner who's 5, and he's at a Montessori school. And then my youngest is 3, and he is always very jealous of his siblings who get to go to school, and he talks about his own school all the time.
Kevin: Your entrance into the parent advocacy world, and this is important since we're in the middle of School Choice Week, but how did your children and their experience motivate you to do what you've been doing?
Kayla: We had a great start with our oldest in a school nearby that's a charter school. We loved their model and the way they did everything. And the first couple of years, it seemed like everything was going okay. Our daughter had a little bit of speech delay, and we were working with them to get her speech services. Our second daughter had much more significant speech issues. She was diagnosed with apraxia. She was very late to speak and very unintelligible when she did. But we went through the district to get her services, and after a year in their developmental preschool program, she came out worse than she went in. And that's around the same time I learned about the Empowerment Scholarship Account, Arizona's ESA program, education savings accounts that allow parents to access funds that are earmarked for their kids' education. And I started the process with that.
At the same time, with our oldest, while we loved the school and we loved her teacher, the school wasn't willing to provide some services for additional needs that ended up popping up into her education. Like many of us parents realize, it doesn't always start the same way that it ends. As she was doing great, we didn't realize just how much she was actually struggling because she was compensating so well. So while we were thinking, "She's a great reader," she was a great guesser, and turns out she had dyslexia and dysgraphia, and as things were getting more difficult, it was harder for her to bridge that gap.
So we entered the ESA program for her too. And when we get into the program, every parent goes through this moment of, "Well, what do I do now?" Because now your kid's education is completely your responsibility. How do I make sure they're learning what they're learning? How do I pick the right schools? So it was a lot of that, a little bit of a deer in the headlights at the beginning. I'm one of those people that asks questions, and I don't really stop until I get the answers that I need. I'm pushy like that, and sometimes you need to be, but I get it. Sometimes parents don't have the time, resources or the mental capacity to just spend that time doing that. So I found myself being able to stand in that gap for parents that had issues that I was familiar with, that I could find out for them and get the answers that they needed and get them solutions for their kids. And it just grew from there.
Kevin: Now, we talk about school choice, and as you know, I've been active in the school choice movement for many years, going back to my days in D.C. But it really is about parent empowerment where parents are able to find the school that works for their child or their children and their children's acute specific needs and matches their needs with the right school that provides those services. But it has become such a highly contentious and political issue, largely because many people view school choice as an attack on public schools. How would you respond to that?
Kayla: The only reason my mom was able to get a zone variance for me was because my grandparents worked for the school districts and we knew people. But being able to send your kid to a school that works for them shouldn't depend on nepotism. It shouldn't depend on who you know. You have access to the resources available to you. In America, every child is entitled to a publicly-funded education regardless of their nationality, their race, their income level. Every child living in our country has the right to attend a publicly-funded school. But I would say that the right is for their education to be funded publicly. The right doesn't lie at the institutional level. It lies at the individual level.
And when we have programs like the ESA program in Arizona, the Hope Scholarship Program in West Virginia and other places, that money that the student is entitled to is able to actually fulfill its purpose in providing them an education. Because if you just say, "The money stops where the public school stops," but that public school, that institution isn't able to meet that child's needs, then it's not doing what it was intended to do. And while the public school system is amazing, and I loved my experience in it — I went to a fantastic high school in Spokane that gave me fantastic and great opportunities — it wasn't the right place for my younger sister, and my mom didn't have the option, the programs available to her that I do for my kids.
And I think if we're focusing on why do we place a value on publicly-funding education in our country, if not to have successful education attained by individual students, is it to have an institution or is it to educate our kids? And I would say educating our kids doesn't threaten a system. If that system works for the kids that are there, fantastic. But other individuals might need different kinds of systems, different kinds of setups in order to get a successful education.
Kevin: But to your point, the vast majority of kids, no matter what options are out there, between 70%, 80%, 85% of kids are going to go to traditional public schools. And for many kids, that option works. But now we have so many kids with a diverse array of needs that may not be able to be fit or met in traditional public schools. I liked the fact that you alluded to the individual needs of children and families. When you talk about this idea of school choice, educational choice, parent choice, it is about meeting the kids where they are. The educational savings account in Arizona was pretty unique at the time. Talk a little bit about that program because that led you to start the organization, which provides advice and counsel to parents who avail themselves to that program.
Kayla: Yeah, absolutely. So the simple way that the Empowerment Scholarship Account works in Arizona is that a qualified parent, which now, after this past summer, all students eligible to receive K-12 education can now receive an ESA account. But an eligible student that receives an account is granted access to 90% of the state allocated per pupil funding. So our public schools here are funded with state revenue, and they have a state budget, they have a federal budget, and many districts have a locality budget for municipalities that charge property taxes and stuff. So you get local money, federal money, and state money. So ESA only touches the state money. It diverts that money that is assigned to that student, and it diverts it into a fund for the ESA program, and we are provided 90% of it; the 10% is reserved for administrative costs because you have to run the program.
And then we get quarterly disbursements. And from that, we are able to purchase items for curriculum. If I'm educating at home, I can purchase curriculum and materials that I need to be able to teach my children at home. I can pay for private school tuition if my child needs to attend a specialized private school, or if there's just a private school that has smaller class sizes that's near our home that I prefer, I can send my child to that. I can pay for educational therapies and services like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and I can pay that out of pocket. As the mother of special needs students, I know how expensive therapies can be. And even with insurance, sometimes the cost for those is prohibitive or you are restricted on how much you can see. But the most recent auditor's report shows that any fraud misspending in the ESA program is very minimal because parents have gone through so much to get into this program. We want to see this money benefiting our students' education in the best way possible.
And when we started, the pandemic, of course, hit, and we all went into lockdown in March of that year. And suddenly, parents that had never thought of using an ESA because their kid was getting whatever services they needed in their school — suddenly they weren't getting those services because you can't do occupational therapy over a Zoom call. You can't get the services you need when schools are closed. So, suddenly we went from having 7,000 families in the program to over 11,000 within a quarter and a half, and we helped make that possible. We were helping educate parents about how to do that, how to do the thing, how do you do the thing.
So I was hosting ESA 101 podcast, Facebook Live videos where it was like, “Well, how do I find a service provider, and how do I do this, and how do I file an appeal, and how do I do all these things?” And then it was also an election year. People were like, "How do I know which representatives are supportive of this program because I want to make sure it's protected." ESA has always been on very fine political margins. Like you said, it unfortunately is a very politically polarizing issue.
Kevin: This issue of parent empowerment, this issue of parent choice, as you mentioned, is highly politicized. The politics of education around it have created either-or paradigms. So either you're for traditional schools or you're against them. Either you're for parent choice or you're against parent choice. And at the end of the day, the yardstick that I use to measure what I would support in education and in the education of our children is: will this approach help a child or group of children learn? I mean, quite simply, and if the answer is yes, I'm for it. If the answer is no, I'm against it. And it really has nothing to do with the political boxes. It really comes down to whether or not the proposal will help children learn. Now why is it, do you think, we can't get there and everything has to be either-or and the most important variable about will this help a child learn — why is that put on the back burner?
Kayla: The public education system is the largest entitlement program in the country to use the term like: It's a sacred cow in our country. It's something that you don't touch, and it's hard to shift paradigms into: we don't have to do away with something entirely, completely. We don't even have to necessarily completely change what it is, but we need to be able to make room for what else can be. One of the things I was able to do was to go through the Pilot Parents program here in Arizona, and they teach parents the system and how to get through with disability and advocacy and stuff. And you learn the history of how we dealt with individuals with disabilities in the past and how the programs have changed and all this stuff.
And one thing that really stuck with me from this training was how we as a nation shifted from a system-centered approach to people with disabilities to a person-centered approach. So instead of saying, "Well, your child has Down syndrome; they're going to go live in this institution. They're going to be taught these skills, and then they're going to have this job, and they're going to live in this group home." Now, when we address disability, we go to that individual because it doesn't matter if they have the same disability as someone else; they're still an individual. They have their own wants, needs, desires. We're seeing them as a person, and we're treating them in their lives holistically. But I think we need to start making that change with education.
And obviously, that's a much bigger institution. It's a much bigger system. It's going to take time. Their road is going to be long, but we have to start making that shift from seeing it just as the public school system and doing what the school needs and what the school wants and focusing on this to how are our approaches, how is our education actually meeting needs of children at individual levels? And I think when we start doing that, we're going to see a better educated populace. We're going to have more needs met of these individuals because they're children now, but they're going to be adults. They're going to be running our country later. They're going to be taking care of us later. And those that have had their needs met and have had an education that has been fulfilling and successful, and has given them the opportunities to attain things that they could not have attained otherwise — we are going to be in a better place for it.
Kevin: That answer leads me to my final question, which is what I really want to know, is how can we all get along? How can we make that transition that you talked about, where the transition from a systems-based approach in public education to a personalized learning approach takes into account the needs, wants, desires and interests of children and parents and families in this highly-politicized world?
Kayla: I really think it comes down to personal experiences and stories and being willing to listen. I have many friends who use their local neighborhood public school and love it, and I've attended some games and events and stuff for their kids and it's wonderful. It's lovely. And they've done the same for us, keeping in touch with us about things that are happening for our kids. Well, how is that going with the tutor that you have for Sarah? Does she like it? Is it going to continue next year?
And being able to connect and know that it's okay if we don't make the same choices, but not only just being able to share our stories and have them listened to and listening to others. But having the platforms to be able to do so honestly and transparently as there's always something going on in the media. And it's gotten to the point where a lot of ESA parents who might otherwise jump at the chance to share their stories and experiences have gotten to the point where with the media, they won't. They don't even want to try because they don't want to be identified as a parent who's done this because they don't want to be attacked. They don't want to be maligned, misquoted, because, unfortunately, we have a media atmosphere here in our state that is pretty set against people who do not choose the public school system.
So, to be able to have spaces and platforms to share our stories and our successes and our failures and our doubts and dreams and all that for our kids in an open and honest way, whether or not ... Whatever we're choosing for our kids, I really think, and even beyond education, being able to share our stories like that civilly in community is so important. And having community is so important because you're never going to have a monolith of anybody, whether you're talking education or you're talking culture or whatever region, you're never going to have a monolith of a community. So we all need to start learning how to listen and share again.
Kevin: Yeah. Kayla, that's well said. And an important message: communication, listening, sharing stories, mutual respect and understanding, as you've alluded to. Look, Kayla, thank you so much for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Kayla: Thank you so much for having me, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK.
For more information on Stride, an online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Kayla Svedin is one of the founders of Empowered Arizona Families. Her unique story led her to start the non-profit organization, which seeks to ensure every family has access to a school that works for their children.
As a mother of four and staunch advocate for parent involvement in education, Kayla works to empower families to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of their kids.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.