/Demand for disability vouchers outstrips supply

Demand for disability vouchers outstrips supply

After a slow start, the state’s program that allows students with disabilities to receive a scholarship or voucher for private schools is now gaining momentum. The law’s supporters point to the increasing number of applicants as proof of its success. Others argue that the availability of vouchers does not change the fact that many of the services required are not offered by private schools. The demand outstripped the supply in the second year. Some of the 425 vouchers were awarded by the Mississippi Department of Education in a lottery. More than 100 people are still on the waiting lists. Each applicant will be awarded $6,637 to cover a year of tuition at private schools, books, tutoring, and other approved services. The approval of scholarships does not mean that they will be used. Last year, 386 applications were received, but only 157 used the accounts. This could be because they didn’t find the right school for their child, or that they didn’t complete the reimbursement process. Last week, all 425 scholarship recipients received notification that their applications had been approved. Each recipient will receive $6637 to cover a year of tuition, books, tutoring, and other approved services. The program has had a profound impact on the lives of parents such as Martha Beard, whose adopted daughter Lanna will be using the voucher this year. Lanna was diagnosed early with fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit disorder. She also has a visual perception disorder that causes her to have trouble remembering and retention information. Lanna attended East Rankin Academy, then went to public school. Her doctor recommended New Summit School in Jackson. She visited the school with her mother, despite the fact that the annual tuition of $7500 was too costly for their family. Beard stated, “We knew that was where she needed to go.” Beard also learned about the Equal Opportunities for Students with Special Needs Act (a 2015 bill that created “educational savings accounts” for students with Individualized Education Plans. Beard stated that the voucher would offset Lanna’s tuition at $150 per month, with the exception of $150.
Video by Empower Mississippi. Lanna Beard, who will enter 7th grade in this year’s seventh grade, said that she is not the same child as last year. Others parents feel that the scholarships don’t help if there aren’t other options for their child. Diana White’s 10-year old son Rhett has autism and is developmentally delayed. White claims that Rhett functions at the 4-year-old level and cannot yet write his name. Rhett attended public schools his entire life. He currently attends Enterprise Attendance Center, Lincoln County School District. White stated that his teacher and the program were great. However, White and her husband decided they would look into other options closer to their Wesson home. Magnolia Speech School was found in Jackson. This would have meant an hour-long journey each day from their Wesson home to Jackson. They applied and planned to use the vouchers for tuition reimbursement. The cost ranges between $550 to $850 per month. She described, “We were told that they deal with communication and speech and also have an autism program, so it seemed like a good fit.” White and her husband were informed by the school that Rhett wasn’t able to achieve the academic standards required for acceptance. His mother stated that Rhett is able to function socially but not academically. We were not surprised to say the least. We asked them if they knew of any other places. White replied, “Where else?” Rhett continued at Enterprise where his mother believes the special education program to be strong. White stated that she believes, along with other critics, that the $3 million spent on the program would have been better spent in public schools. Take Rhett’s teacher. She’s the lower elementary special education teacher. She teaches anywhere from 10-12 students every day. They are not all Rhett. She explained that some are autistic, developmental delayed, dyslexic or just need remediation. “I believe they (the funds), would be better invested in the public school program to allow more specialization of student need within special education.” However, supporters of the law claim there is no evidence that more funding would solve the problem. They also point out that there are private schools that can serve students with disabilities and are willing to do so. Grant Callen, founder and president Empower Mississippi’s school choice advocacy group, stated that there is no evidence that giving schools more money will result in a lower teacher-student ratio, smaller class sizes, or more personalized learning. “It is crucial that we consider our education dollars as being allocated to educate individual children. If a student isn’t being served well, then it’s imperative we adjust to make sure that that student can be served elsewhere.” Critics also point out potential unintended consequences. Nancy Loome, the executive director of The Parents’ Campaign, a public education advocacy group, stated that the law was amended this session to allow students who have completed an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), within the past five years to be eligible. This means that some students may no longer need special services to go to private schools. IEPs are programs or written plans that schools create for students with disabilities. These include a description of the child’s academic achievements and functioning as well as measurable goals and a list identifying services that will help them achieve those goals. Loome also points out that voucher-holder private schools are not required to offer special services. “We brought it up several times when the legislation was first passed. Loome stated that the legislature went in the opposite direction, expanding the program to students who are not likely to have special needs. Rep. John Moore (R-Brandon), who proposed expanding the program for children with IEPs in five years ago, stated that this is not true. Moore, Chairman of the House Education Committee, stated that there is a chance that the child who used the services four years ago may still need them. Parents must agree to document their child’s disability at regular intervals and have them assessed every three years to see if they are still a child with a disability, as defined by federal law. Loome stated that other states have discovered that parents can “shop” for a doctor who will write such a diagnosis. “But, the requirement for verification after three years may help to weedout some who might take benefit of the lowered requirement for a voucher to student who does not have a special needs.” Supporters hope that funding for the program will increase in the coming years. “I believe there is a high likelihood that funding for this program will increase.” Callen didn’t say if that would be the next session. To support this work, you can make a regular donation to us today as part of the Spring Member Drive. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of all Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think.