/Spending taxpayer money twice Education Scholarship Accounts face scrutiny

Spending taxpayer money twice Education Scholarship Accounts face scrutiny

Nonprofit Mississippi News The Legislature is considering expanding state Education Scholarship accounts. Questions are being raised as to whether the existing accounts are being properly used. ESA accounts were established in 2015 to allow parents of special-needs students in public schools to pay tuition for their children and other services. Advocates claim the program assists students who are failing in public schools by reimbursing parents for tuition, tutoring, and other special needs services. Critics of ESA claim that funds are sometimes being used to enable students to attend private schools that cannot provide special education resources. Surprisingly, many of these schools receive special education services through the public school district. This raises questions about whether taxpayers are paying twice for ESA students to get the services they require. The federal law complicates the issue. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that public schools must spend a proportionate amount of federal IDEA funds to provide special education services for students attending private schools. Clinton Public School District provides special education services for two private schools within its district, Clinton Christian Academy (and Mt. Salus Christian Academy. Mt. Salus is listed as one of the 88 private schools in the state that received Education Scholarship Account funds this year from parents of students with special needs. Bill Maner is the head of Mt. Salus said that all special education services provided at the school by Clinton Public Schools are covered. Maner stated that the Clinton Public Schools can help special needs children. Maner also pointed out that Mt. Students with disabilities like dyslexia or other disabilities will appreciate the small class sizes at Salus. Chaffie Gibbs from Clinton Public School District, Special Education Director, said that the district has one teacher who provides “supplemental assistance” to students at private schools and one speech-language pathologist who provides therapy for private school students. Gibbs stated that each teacher spends approximately 2 hours per week on this work and both are paid by school districts. The school district is not reimbursed for the services provided, but the private school may receive ESA funds from parents to help pay tuition fees. Gibbs stated that it is difficult for the Clinton district to track the funds and that they do not know if any private school students are receiving ESA funds. Gibbs stated that private schools don’t have the same reporting requirements as public schools. Gibbs stated that Gibbs believes this is a double standard, particularly when it comes to taxpayer dollars. It is difficult to tell if a private school student who receives an ESA is being served by the public school because of federal privacy laws. It is also difficult to estimate the number of cases of overlap because private school districts do not have to provide the names of their schools to the state Education Department. Gretchen Cagle (state director of special education in Mississippi) said that it is impossible to speculate about the possibility of a double payment. Cagle noted that federal law only requires districts to spend a certain amount on public schools. This means there is no guarantee that private school students will be able to receive all the services. She said that if funds run out in December, services will not be offered for the spring semester. School district administrators are not all in agreement about whether private school students can be served if they have ESA funds. It is difficult to identify which students will receive the funds because $6,500 goes directly towards the parents. According to the law, parents must consent to their child not being enrolled in public schools and that the participating student does not have an individual right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Jennifer Boykin, director for special education in Pearl Public Schools District said that she did not believe that the district was responsible for providing special education services for ESA students attending private schools. In one instance, she said that the district asked the parent if their child used an ESA. The parent replied yes and the services were not provided by the public school. Madison County School District Special Service Director Lynn Slay stated that this situation has not occurred in Madison County but she wasn’t clear on what the district would need to do if it did. Cagle said that ESA students must still be served by the law. The law section that states that the student does not have an “individual entitlement” refers only to the student’s individual right to receive services in public schools. Parents can take their student out of public schools, but they lose that right to individual services. Cagle explained that if the child is going to private school and has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), and has been receiving help with reading, math and tutorial services (in public schools), he or she may not be able to get the services there (in private schools). Multiple requests to the U.S. Department of Education regarding this issue in Mississippi, and three other states that have education scholarship accounts for students with special needs were unsuccessful. Biloxi Public School district also provides special education services for two private schools that have at least one student who has an ESA: Nativity BVM school and Our Lady of Fatima elementary school. According to Sister Mary Jo Mike (principal of Nativity BVM), while Nativity BVM offers speech therapy with the school district, ESA students are not eligible for this therapy. The school does have a learning resource program for students with disabilities. Mike stated that the Mississippi Department of Education has recognized the resource program and that the teacher is a master’s in special education. Officials from Our Lady of Fatima elementary school did not respond to questions regarding their school’s services. Principal Cindy Hahn asked Superintendent Mike Ladner for clarifications. He did not respond to multiple messages from Mississippi Today. Greenville Public Schools District also offers special education services to King’s Court Christian Academy, a private school that receives state ESA funds through parents who enroll their children. Gray Tollison (Republican from Oxford) is the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He has a bill in the Legislature that would expand the ESA program to all public schools. Tollison said that he doesn’t see any problem with ESA students being served by public school teachers. Tollison stated that he doesn’t see any problem with this, provided students get what they need. Tollison’s House counterpart, Republican Rep. Richard Bennett did not answer questions about the possibility of overlap. According to state records, 148 students used ESA funds for tuition at schools such as Magnolia Speech School, Dynamic dyslexia Design: the 3-D School and New Summit in Greenwood or Jackson. Another 174 students used funds to pay tuition at private schools such as Mt. State records indicate that Salus, Catholic schools such As Our Lady of Fatima, and a few online schools, like Keystone High School Online and Forest Trail Academy, were used by another 174 students. Some private schools offer special education services. Sylva Bay Academy, Bay Springs, has a dyslexia therapist. She is a licensed educator, educational diagnostician and offers dyslexia language therapy and remedial tutoring. Critics of the program wonder if students are receiving what they need when they enroll in smaller schools with limited special education resources. The federal law requires that public school districts offer services to private school students. This raises the question of how much the services are actually being paid for. Administrators of special education services in public schools agree that there must be a way to prevent double dipping. Jennifer Boykin, director of special education in the Pearl School District, stated that it would be very helpful if there were a way to determine if students who are enrolled in private schools receiving ESA money are receiving services from the district. The ESA program. The Mississippi Legislature adopted the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act 2015, which allows parents to withdraw their child with special needs from public schools and enroll them in private schools. The funds can also be used for tutoring, transportation, curriculum, and other expenses. The law does not specify that the private school where the child is enrolled must be capable of providing the special education services the child requires. Public school special education directors claim they have seen many instances where a child who was eligible for an ESA, but was not accepted by a private school, ended up back in their school district. Cross Creek Christian Academy, Olive Branch, is one example of a private school that receives ESA funds for at most one student. However, it does not offer special education services. Missy Goucher is the school’s business manager. She also stated that the school does not receive any funding from DeSoto County Schools District. Cross Creek students could use their ESA funds to pay tuition, as well as other services like tutoring, curriculum, and transportation. Boykin stated that most private schools will not take her children. Boykin stated that most private schools won’t take our children. ESA supporters argue that parents have the flexibility to customize their child’s education. Expanding the ESA program would encourage private schools to offer more services and open new special schools. Grant Callen, CEO of Empower Mississippi school choice advocacy group, said that education scholarship accounts were designed to allow families to combine services. He opposed any language in 2015’s bill that would have required schools to provide their own special education services. This is the advantage of an ESA over a voucher, which sends funds directly to private schools. Callen explained that you can make it your own by using tuition funds and the remainder for tutoring, therapy, or other educational services. “We believe that that’s beneficial.” Callen said that the program allowed schools such as The 3-D School of Petal to grow (it just opened an additional campus in Ocean Springs), and that it will encourage educators to open similar schools. The Legislature is currently considering a bill to dramatically expand the program to all public school students, and remove the requirement that they must have special education needs in order to be eligible for funds. Nancy Loome, executive director at The Parents’ Campaign, expressed concern about the lack of accountability regarding the program. Loome stated that she believes it is a disservice to taxpayers and children. Loome noted that public schools must provide accommodations for public school students under federal law. Private schools do not have such an obligation. “We are investing in a program with no accountability. She continued, “We don’t know the quality of the education these students receive.” Mississippi’s current political climate favors “school choice,” which is worrying for many in public education. Gov. Phil Bryant, Philip Gunn, House Speaker and Lt. Governor. Tate Reeves spoke during a rally at the State Capitol. They spoke out about the successes of current choice programs (which include the ESA and charter schools, as well as a scholarship for dyslexic student) and advocated for more expansion. Gov. Bryant compared the public school system with a “Berlin Wall”, trapping students and stripping them from their individuality. Public school educators are worried about the talk. Phil Burchfield is the head of Mississippi Association of Superintendents, and the former superintendent of Clinton School District. He said that it was alarming. He stated, “I believe that any time public money is transferred to private institutions regardless of their status, it concerns superintendents throughout the state.” It’s alarming to see where it is now and where it will go in the future. One student losing two students to a voucher or scholarship program isn’t that big, but when you think about what 10-20 will do to you, that’s the pay of a teacher. Demand for the program is evident. There’s a long waiting list with 338 applicants. In the last school year, 435 scholarships were given and 322 families applied for reimbursement. This means that families used ESA funds for child services. An ESA is the perfect solution for parents like Leah Ferretti and Blake Ferretti. Leah Ferretti is the mother of two sons with dyslexia and advocates for school choice issues. She said that Thomas was not properly screened by Cleveland public schools when he was first enrolled. After being evaluated by outsiders, the school was unable to provide the Orton-Gillingham-based therapy that he had been prescribed. Ferretti, herself an educator, enrolled in a dyslexia therapy course at a college to be able help her son. Ferretti applied for an ESA scholarship through the state, and was added to the waiting list along with 337 other applicants. She withdrew her son from the district because she would not be informed until July whether her family was awarded the scholarship and because her public school district wouldn’t allow her to visit the school during the school day to provide therapy for her son. Thomas was then enrolled at Bayou Academy, which allows her to work during school hours. She said that she couldn’t afford another year. Her family was in financial trouble due to the fact that she had to pay for private school tuition and student loans for her dyslexia therapy program. Pass Christian Republican Carolyn Crawford was the author of the House version the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act. She has firsthand experience with the need for alternatives. Crawford’s daughter, who has a special needs, was not receiving the services she needed in her district. Crawford explained that Crawford’s daughter, who has a special need, moved to Pass Christian, where she is now receiving the services. “I have heard from parents who used this program that they were at their wits ends due to it.”
She said that the child required something their public school couldn’t provide. Crawford stated that she can relate to them. Crawford said, “I am all for parents having options and opportunities.” She said that she has been in this situation and knows what it is like for parents to stand up against the public school system to try to get the services they need. “And, if your lawyer is not available, you will be stuck between a rock & a hard place.” To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to our 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 Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think. This Story Republished