Spending taxpayer money twice? Education Scholarship Accounts face scrutiny

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Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

Spectators watch as Gov. Phil Bryant delivers his State of the State address last month in the House chamber. Bryant trumpeted school choice in his remarks.

As the Legislature considers expanding state Education Scholarship Accounts, questions are being raised about whether existing accounts are being used appropriately.

The ESA accounts, as they are known, were created in 2015 to provide up to $6,500 in state funds per year so that parents of public school students with special needs could pay for private school tuition and other services to address their children’s education needs.

Advocates say the program helps students being failed by the public school system, reimbursing their parents for costs of tuition, tutoring or other services their special needs demand.

Critics of the ESA program say that in some cases the funds are being used to allow students to attend private schools that have no ability to deliver special education resources on their own. And interestingly enough, a number of these schools receive their special education services from the public school district, raising questions about whether taxpayers are essentially paying twice for ESA students to receive the services they need.

Federal law helps muddy the question. A provision under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that public school districts must spend a “proportionate share” of federal IDEA funds on providing special education services to students enrolled in private schools.

For example, Clinton Public School District currently provides special education services to two private schools in its district: Clinton Christian Academy and Mt. Salus Christian Academy.

Both Clinton Christian Academy and Mt. Salus are listed as two of the 88 private schools across the state receiving Education Scholarship Account funds from parents of special needs students this year.

Bill Maner, head of school at Mt. Salus, said all special education services at the school are provided by the Clinton Public Schools.

“We can meet the needs (of a special needs child) through the help of the local public schools,” Maner said.

He also noted that one of the benefits of Mt. Salus is a small class size, which is helpful for students with dyslexia and other disabilities.

According to Clinton Public School District’s Special Education Director Chaffie Gibbs, the district has one teacher who provides “supplemental support” to students in the private schools and one language-speech pathologist who provides therapy to private school students. Each spends about 2 hours a week doing that work, Gibbs said, and both are paid by the school district.

In this case, the school district does not receive reimbursement for providing the services, yet the private school that cannot provide the services on its own may be receiving ESA funds used by the parents to pay tuition charges.

Difficult to track funds 

Gibbs said the Clinton district has no way to know whether any of the private school students it serves are those who receive ESA funds.

“There’s no kind of reporting to do as public schools do. To me, that’s a double standard, especially when we’re talking about taxpayer dollars,” Gibbs said.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, left, acknowledges the efforts of Gov. Phil Bryant, second from left, his wife Deborah Bryant, then-Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, and Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, in a ceremony for the signing of the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act on April 16, 2015, at the Capitol.

Federal privacy laws make it difficult to determine whether the same private school student receiving an ESA is also being served by the public school. And because school districts are not required to submit the names of the private schools they serve to the state Education Department, it is difficult to say how many cases of overlap may exist.

“I really can’t speculate on that because there are just too many variables that go into that,” said Gretchen Cagle, state director of special education at the Mississippi Department of Education, when asked whether it’s possible a double payment is occurring.

Cagle also noted that because federal law only requires a district to spend a proportionate amount of its funds on working with public schools, there is no guarantee private school students will receive all of the services throughout the year. If the funds are used up in December, for example, no services are offered in the spring semester, she said.

There is also a lack of consensus among school district administrators about whether they are required to serve private school students if they determine that they receive ESA funds. Because the $6,500 goes directly to the parent, it is more difficult to determine which students receive the funds.

The law states that to receive the ESA funds, the parent must agree not to enroll their child in a public school and acknowledge that “the participating student has no individual entitlement to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) from their home school district, including special education and related services, for as long as the student is participating in the program …”

Jennifer Boykin, director of special education in Pearl Public School District, said she interpreted that to mean the district is not responsible for providing special education services to ESA students in private schools. She said in one instance the district asked a parent if the child was using an ESA, the parent responded yes, and the public school did not provide the services.

Madison County School District Special Services Director Lynn Slay said that situation has never come up in Madison County, but that she was unclear on what would be required of the district if it did.

But according to Cagle, the law still requires ESA students to be served. That portion of the law that says the student no longer has “individual entitlement” refers to the student’s “individual right to services” that they receive in public schools under federal law.

“When parents take a student out of public school, they leave behind that individual right to services. So if the child goes to a private school and has had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and has been getting help with reading, math with tutorial services (in the public school) … he or she may or may not get those services there (in the private school),” Cagle explained.

Repeated requests for information to the U.S. Department of Education on this issue in Mississippi and three other states with education scholarship accounts for special needs students were not returned.

Biloxi Public School District is another district providing special education services to two private schools that enroll at least one student with an ESA: Nativity BVM School and Our Lady of Fatima Elementary School.

While Nativity BVM offers speech therapy in conjunction with the school district, students receiving ESAs are not eligible for the therapy, according to Sister Mary Jo Mike, the principal of Nativity BVM.

However, the school has its own learning resource program for students with disabilities. The resource program is recognized by the Mississippi Department of Education, and the teacher holds a master’s degree in special education, Mike said.

Officials with Our Lady of Fatima Elementary School did not answer questions about their school’s services. Principal Cindy Hahn referred questions to Superintendent Mike Ladner, who did not return multiple messages from Mississippi Today.

Greenville Public School District also provides special education services to a private school, King’s Court Christian Academy, one of the 88 schools receiving state ESA funds via parents who enroll their children there.

Gil Ford photography

Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, a Republican from Oxford who has a bill pending in the Legislature to expand the ESA program to all public school students, said he does not see a problem with ESA students potentially being served by public school teachers.

“I don’t see anything wrong with that, as long as students are getting what they need,” Tollison said.

Tollison’s counterpart in the House, Republican Rep. Richard Bennett, did not respond to questions regarding the potential overlap.

State records show that 148 students use ESA funds to pay for tuition at special schools like Magnolia Speech School, Dynamic Dyslexia Design: The 3-D School, and New Summit in Greenwood and Jackson. Another 174 students used funds at small private schools like Mt. Salus, Catholic schools such as Our Lady of Fatima and even a handful of online schools like Keystone High School-Online and Forest Trail Academy, state records show.

Some smaller private schools do offer their own special education services. For example, Sylva Bay Academy in Bay Springs contracts with a dyslexia therapist described as a “master trainer of the Orton-Gillingham Approach.” She is a licensed educator and educational diagnostician, and offers dyslexia language therapy, remedial tutoring and educational diagnostic testing, according to the school’s website.

But critics of the program question whether students are getting what they need in most cases when they enroll at smaller schools without special education resources. In addition, the provision under federal law that public school districts provide services to these private school children begs the question of whether the services are, in essence, being paid for twice.

Public school administrators in charge of special education services agree there needs to be a mechanism for ensuring no “double dipping” is occurring.

“I think it would be really helpful” if there was a way to tell whether students enrolled in private schools with ESA money are getting services from the public school district, said Jennifer Boykin, the Pearl School District director of special education.

The ESA program

The Mississippi Legislature passed the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act in 2015 to give parents the option of withdrawing their special needs child from public school and enrolling them in a private school, or using the funds for a host of expenses such as tutoring, transportation to and from school, and curriculum, among others. There is no specific provision in the law that a private school the child is enrolled in must be able to deliver the special education services the child needs.

In fact, public school special education directors say they know of several instances in which a child who received an ESA but was not accepted to the private school, and wound up back in the school district.

For example, Cross Creek Christian Academy in Olive Branch, a school on the list of private schools receiving ESA funds for at least one student, does not provide special education services at all.

Missy Goucher, the business manager for the school, said it also does not receive any help from DeSoto County School District.

A student or students attending Cross Creek, however, could be using their ESA funds for tuition at the school in addition to other services such as tutoring, curriculum and transportation.

“Most of the private schools won’t take our kids,” Boykin said. “I’ve had a few students whose parents have let me know their child was denied entering into a private school with an ESA account, and the reasoning varies from they don’t have the ability to give them what they need to no reason given at all.”

Madison County School District Special Services Director Lynn Slay said she can recall instances when students left the district but returned because they couldn’t find the services they needed.

Supporters of the ESA say parents’ flexibility to tailor their child’s education is what makes the program valuable, and that expansion of the ESA program would encourage more special schools to open and current private schools to expand their services.

Empower Mississippi

Grant Callen, president of Empower Mississippi

Grant Callen, the CEO of school choice advocacy group Empower Mississippi, says education scholarship accounts are designed specifically so families can combine services. He opposed any language in the 2015 bill that would have required a school to provide its own special education services.

“That is the benefit of an ESA versus a voucher (in which funds go directly to a private school). You can customize it using part of the funds for tuition and the rest for tutoring, therapy or other educational services,” Callen said. “We think that’s a benefit.”

Callen also said the program has allowed schools like The 3-D School in Petal to expand (it recently opened an additional campus in Ocean Springs) and will help create an environment that encourages educators to open similar schools. A bill that would dramatically expand the current program to all public school students — removing the requirement that they have special education needs to be eligible for the funds — is currently pending in the Legislature.

Nancy Loome, executive director of the public education advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign, said she has concerns about the lack of accountability for the program.

“We think it does a disservice to children and taxpayers,” Loome said. She noted that while public schools are required to provide accommodations to public school students by federal law, private schools have no such obligation.

“We’re investing in a program that has no accountability. We have no idea about the quality of education these students are receiving,” she continued.

Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

A view of the school choice rally held Tuesday in the state Capitol rotunda.

And in Mississippi, the current political climate is currently pro-“school choice,” which has many in public education worried. Gov. Phil Bryant, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves spoke at a recent rally at the State Capitol. 

They spoke of the success of the current choice programs, which include the ESA, charter schools and a scholarship for dyslexic students, and advocated for further expansion.

Gov. Bryant likened the public school system to being inside a “Berlin wall,” trapping students inside and stripping them of their individuality.

The talk makes public school educators nervous.

Clinton Public Schools

Phillip Burchfield, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents

Phil Burchfield, the head of the Mississippi Association of Superintendents and the former superintendent of Clinton Public School District, said it is concerning.

“I think that any time public monies are transferred to private institutions, whatever they are, it concerns superintendents across the state,” he said. “Where it is now and where it will be in the future — it’s concerning. The loss of one student, two students (to a scholarship or voucher program) is not that much, but when you’re talking about what 10 or 20 will do to you — that’s the salary of a teacher or two.”

Demand for the program

There is clearly a demand for the program, which has a lengthy waiting list of 338 applications. This school year, 435 scholarships were awarded and 322 families submitted requests for reimbursement, meaning those families used the ESA funds to pay for services for their child.

For parents like Leah and Blake Ferretti, an ESA is exactly what they need.

Leah Ferretti, the mother of two dyslexic sons who advocates for “school choice” issues, said that when son Thomas was enrolled in public schools in Cleveland, the district failed to properly screen him. Then, when he was evaluated outside the district, the school could not provide him with the Orton-Gillingham based therapy he was prescribed.

In the meantime, Ferretti, an educator herself, enrolled in a dyslexia therapy program at a college so she would be able to help her son. She also applied for an ESA scholarship from the state and was placed on the waiting list, along with the other 337 applications.

Because she wouldn’t be notified until July whether the family received the scholarship, and because the public school district would not allow her to come to the school during the day to provide her son therapy, she withdrew him from the district.

She then enrolled Thomas in Bayou Academy, a private school that allows her to come work with him during the school day.

“We couldn’t afford to lose another year,” she said of her decision.

It put her family in a bind financially, however, to incur the cost of not only private school tuition but also student loans for her dyslexia therapy degree.

Mississippi House

Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian

Rep. Carolyn Crawford, a Republican from Pass Christian, authored the House version of the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act (the Senate bill became law) and has personal experience with the need for options.

Crawford’s daughter has a special need and was not receiving the necessary services in the district she attended. Luckily, however, her daughter moved to their home district of Pass Christian and is now receiving those services, Crawford said.

“I’ve heard stories from parents who have used this program and they were just at their wit’s end because their child needed something that their public school could not provide,” she said.

Crawford said she could relate to them.

“I’m all for parents to have opportunities and options. I’ve personally been in that situation, so I know as a parent what it’s like to go up against a public school system and try to get those services that are needed,” she said. “And, if you don’t have the money to hire your own lawyer, then you are in between a rock and a hard place.”