No vouchers for special needs kids until 2017

A new state program allowing parents of Tennessee children with certain disabilities to get public funding for private education likely won’t be ready for enrollment until January 2017, reports Richard Locker.

The Legislature approved the Individualized Education Act in the closing days of this year’s session in April, making it the state’s first variation of a school-voucher program. Eligibility is limited to special-education students with individualized education plans and diagnosed with autism, deafness or blindness, hearing impairments, intellectual disability, orthopedic impairments, traumatic brain injury or visual impairments.

The state estimates about 22,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across Tennessee are eligible, but expects no more than 5 percent will enroll. The bill as originally drafted by state Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and state Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, its sponsors, made eligible any special-needs child with an individualized education plan, or IEP — an estimated 120,000 statewide — but the bill was amended to limit eligibility to those with the disabilities listed above.

The program essentially gives parents of special-needs children the choice of enrolling them in local public schools or in private schools, home school and an array of private services and therapies. The state will deposit the state and local per-student funding that would have paid for their public schooling into state-approved individualized education accounts, or IEAs, and parents will use the money to pay for whatever mixture of qualified private educational services they choose.

“The program provides options for parents and students to choose the education opportunities that best meet their own unique needs through access to public education funds,” said Rebecca Wright, the program’s director at the state Department of Education.

That’s an average of $6,600 per year, the amount generated per student under Tennessee’s Basic Education Program formula, according to testimony presented to the state Senate Education Committee last week. The amount does not include the average $2,433 per year that school systems spend on special education students above the BEP formula. The law does not require supplemental local spending to be transferred to parents who opt out of their public schools, and no federal funds are involved because federal money is drawn down only if the student is enrolled in a public school.

Although the law provides for “the first award of IEAs during the 2016-17 school year,” the program won’t be ready to accept applications until August 2016 and won’t enroll students or begin distributing funds until Jan. 1, 2017, Wright told the Education Committee last week.

That timetable surprised Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, a school-voucher advocate.

“I’m very concerned about this. Why does the rule-making process take so long, such that you would start in the middle of the school year instead of the beginning?” he asked Wright in Tuesday’s hearing. “That is a semester too late in my opinion. You’re not going to have a whole lot of participation, I wouldn’t think, for the second semester of a school year.”

But the law specifies the program cannot not go into effect before Aug. 1, 2016, and Wright said the state’s rule-making process is lengthy.