The state’s program allowing students with disabilities to use a scholarship, or voucher, for private schools and services is picking up after a slow start in its first year.
While supporters of the law cite the growing number of applicants as evidence of the program’s success, others say the availability of the vouchers doesn’t change the fact many of the services needed are not provided by private schools.
In the second year of the program, the demand has outnumbered the supply. The Mississippi Department of Education held a lottery to award some of the 425 available vouchers for the 2016-2017 school year, and more than 100 applicants remain on the waiting list.
Each will receive $6,637 for a year’s worth of private school tuition, books, tutoring or a host of other approved services. However, the approval of the scholarships does not necessarily mean they will be used — last year, 386 applications were approved but only 157 of those used the accounts. That could have been because they couldn’t find a school suitable for their child or they simply didn’t go through the reimbursement process.
All 425 scholarship recipients were notified last week of their applications being approved. Each will receive $6,637 for a year’s worth of private school tuition, books, tutoring or a host of other approved services.
For parents like Martha Beard, whose adopted daughter Lanna will use the voucher again this year, the program has been life changing.
Lanna was diagnosed at a young age with fetal alcohol syndrome, attention deficit disorder and a visual perception disorder, meaning she has trouble retaining and remembering information. She attended East Rankin Academy and then public school but continued to struggle until her doctor suggested New Summit School in Jackson.
She and her mother visited the school despite the fact the yearly tuition of $7,500 was too expensive for the family to afford.
“We knew that’s where she needed to be,” Beard said.
Around the same time, Beard learned about the Equal Opportunities for Students with Special Needs Act, the 2015 bill passed by the Legislature creating “educational savings accounts” for students with Individualized Education Plans. Beard said the voucher offset all but about $150 a month for Lanna’s tuition.
“She’s not even the same child she was a year ago … She has progressed in every area in my opinion – reading, math, science, socially, physically, mentally,” Beard said of Lanna, who will be in the 7th grade this year.
Other parents, however, say the scholarships aren’t helpful when there aren’t options outside the public school system that can serve their child.
Diana White’s 10-year-old son Rhett is autistic and developmentally delayed. White says he functions at the level of a 4-year-old and can’t yet write his name. Rhett has attended public schools all of his life and currently attends Enterprise Attendance Center in Lincoln County School District.
White said his teacher and the program are great, but she and her husband decided to look and see if any better options close enough to their home in Wesson were available.
They eventually found Magnolia Speech School in Jackson, which would mean an hour-long drive each day from their home in Wesson to school. They decided to apply and hoped to use the vouchers to help defray the cost of tuition, which ranges from $550 to $850 a month.
“We were told they deal with communication, speech and language and also have a program for autism, so it sounded like a good fit,” she described.
However, the school told White and her husband that Rhett was not able to perform academically at the level required for acceptance. While Rhett functions well socially, he does not function well academically, his mother said.
“We were disappointed to say the least. We asked the people there, ‘Where else? Where else?’ and basically what we were told is that they didn’t know of anywhere that could specifically address Rhett’s needs,” White said.
Rhett remained at Enterprise, where his mother says the special education program is strong. White said she, like other critics of the program, believe that the money going into the program (a total of $3 million this year) would be better spent in the public schools.
“Take Rhett’s teacher, for instance. She is the lower elementary special education teacher and she has anywhere from 10 to 12 students that she teaches every day, and they’re not all like Rhett. Some are developmentally delayed, some autistic, some dyslexic, some just need remediation,” she explained. “I personally feel they (the funds) would be better invested into the public school program to allow for more specialization of student needs within special education.”
But supporters of the law say there is no evidence that more funding would be a solution, and that there are private schools that serve students with disabilities or are interested in doing so.
“There is no evidence that simply giving schools more money would result in lower teacher to student ratio or smaller class sizes or more individualized learning,” said Grant Callen, the founder and president of the school choice advocacy group Empower Mississippi. “It’s critical that we think of our education dollars as allocated to educate individual students and if an individual student is not being well served, then it’s imperative that we adjust to ensure that student can be served somewhere.”
Critics point out other potential unintended consequences of the bill.
Nancy Loome, executive director of the public education advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign, said that because the law was changed this session to make students who have had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) within the last five years eligible, there may be some students who no longer have an active need for special services using the voucher to attend private schools.
IEPs are written plans or programs developed by schools for students with a disability. They include a statement of the child’s present academic achievement and functioning, along with measurable goals and a list of services to meet those goals.
Loome notes also that the legislation does not require the private schools that take the vouchers to provide special services.
“We brought that up repeatedly when the legislation was first passed. In fact, what happened this legislative session was they kind of went the other direction and expand the program to include students who very likely no longer have a special need,” Loome said.
But Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, who proposed expanding the program to children with IEPs in the last five years, said that is not the case.
“There’s a good possibility that if the child was using the services four years ago, they still need them,” said Moore, chairman of the House Education Committee.
The law requires parents to agree to document their child’s disability “at intervals” and be assessed every three years to determine whether he or she still qualifies as a child with a disability as determined by federal law.
“Unfortunately, other states have found that parents can ‘shop’ for a doctor willing to write such a diagnosis,” Loome said. “But the provision requiring verification after three years could help to weed out some who might take advantage of the lowered requirement to get a voucher for a student who no longer has a special need.”
Supporters continue to hope funding will be increased for the program in coming years.
“I think there’s a great likelihood that the funding for the program will be increased. Whether that’s this (upcoming) session, I don’t know,” Callen said.