/Report Special-needs scholarships need more oversight, but parents satisfied

Report Special-needs scholarships need more oversight, but parents satisfied

Nonprofit Mississippi News An in-depth legislative report states that a program for students with special needs to attend private schools requires more accountability from the state regulators. The Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review examined Mississippi’s Education Scholarship Account program in its Dec. 11 report. The Legislature approved the 2015 “The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act”, which allowed students with special needs to receive $6,000. per year from the state for non-public schools. The scholarship allows families to pay tuition upfront and receive reimbursements, or the Mississippi Department of Education can directly pay the school. Only students who have an Individualized Education Program, (IEP), that has been in place for at least five years are eligible. School districts create an IEP to help students with special needs and disabilities. The Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), which are backed by the program, allow families to choose the best education for their child. Critics claim the program diverts state funding away from public schools and into private schools that may not be equipped to teach students with special learning needs. The $9 million that the state education department allocated to the scholarship program was spent on administration. $4.8 million went to parents and service providers. According to the report, the remaining funds were returned to state treasury. According to the report, 851 ESA scholarships have been awarded by the Department of Education since the program began. These were either through initial applications or lotteries. The scholarship is awarded to students once they have been granted it. If they do not return to school, or attend homeschool, the scholarship will be forfeited. This report examined 424 students who were awarded a scholarship during the 2017-18 schoolyear. More than 60% of these students used the scholarship to help with disabilities in language and speech, as well as health impairments like diabetes or attention deficit disorder. About 30 percent of the total was made up of autistic, developmental delayed and emotionally disabled students. According to the report, 23.5 percent of scholarship recipients were black and 59.5 percent were from other races. The committee interviewed 630 parents. Of the 250 who responded, 91 per cent said that they used the scholarships and were satisfied. Survey results also showed that parents were most likely to refuse to enroll in the ESA program because they couldn’t find the right school for their child, couldn’t afford tuition and have to wait to get reimbursement. Or, their child was placed on a waiting or denied list. The report states that the program lacks the accountability structure necessary to ensure that ESA students are being enrolled in nonpublic schools that meet the statutory requirements. However, there are very few requirements. Parochial and private schools are not required to apply for participation. The report found that six nonpublic schools told the committee that they did not know that they had enrolled an ESA student and that 22 of 33 schools surveyed said that they did not have special-education staff. Currently the law requires MDE to accept eligible applicants on a first-come-first-serve basis until 50 percent of slots are filled. Students are then accepted by lottery. The Department of Education should prioritise students who are on the waiting lists with active Individualized Education Programs rather than randomly selecting from all applicants. The report recommends that lawmakers consider eliminating the lottery component of the law and changing the priority given to students on the waiting lists. MDE should also consider moving to an online application and reimbursement system. Currently, the process has to be done by mail or in person. Grant Callen, president of Empower Mississippi, stated Tuesday that the group will be reviewing the recommendations and urging legislators to “take advantage” of opportunities to improve Mississippi’s ESA program. “This report confirms the popularity of the ESA program, meeting needs and providing hope for parents and students across the state,” Callen said. Speaker Philip Gunn (R-Clinton) stated earlier this month that the House did not intend to consider legislation related to the program during the next legislative session.