State accepting IEA voucher applications; TEA fretting

Press release from state Department of Education
NASHVILLE— The Tennessee Department of Education announced today the launch of applications for its new Individualized Education Account (IEA) Program that provides the opportunity for parents of eligible students with disabilities to access public education funds to choose the education opportunities that best meet their child’s own unique needs.

“The Tennessee Department of Education strives to ensure that every Tennessee student has access to the tools they need to maximize learning,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. “We believe this program is a unique opportunity to empower families to make decisions for their individual children as we continue our commitment to supporting all students as one of our five transformative priorities under under Tennessee Succeeds.”

The department is now accepting applications online for the program, which was sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Representative Debra Moody, R-Covington, and adopted by the General Assembly in 2015.

“It is important that we ensure our most vulnerable children have access to a quality education that meets their unique needs,” Senator Gresham said.

The new program provides parents of eligible students in grades K-12 the ability to choose a variety of approved educational services that best fit the needs of their child. By participating in the IEA Program, parents agree to take full legal responsibility for the education of their child and waive all of their child’s rights to a public education, as well as services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Once a parent or guardian has been approved for participation in the program, a state funded individualized education account will be created for the eligible student. Funds from each student’s IEA can be used for a variety of approved educational expenses, including private school tuition at schools approved to participate in the program, private tutoring and, educational therapies, and more. Parents can find a complete list of additional approved educational expenses, as well as criteria for entrance to the program, on the IEA webpage.

Because this program utilizes public education funds already assigned to each student, there is no cap on the number of eligible students who can participate. The funding that will be disbursed into the student’s IEA is equal to per pupil state and local funds for the district where the student resides and is zoned to attend school. This amount does not include federal funds or additional education funds that local governments contribute to the school district. The average amount of the IEA annual payment is approximately $6,300, but will vary per district.

Parents can now visit the online portal to submit an application for their child. This statewide program will go into effect in January 2017, with parents getting access to the first accounts for use on Jan. 1, 2017.

Press release from Tennessee Education Association
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Education Association again expressed concern over the state’s new IEA Voucher program and urged parents to proceed with caution.

“Programs like the one the Tennessee Department of Education is launching today have been subject to fraud and abuse in other states,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “This is of even greater concern to TEA because this program is targeted toward our most vulnerable children who need strong educational services.”

The new voucher program came about after legislative action in 2015. The program is designated for certain students with disabilities. A similar program in Florida has been subject to millions of dollars in fraud, mostly by way of individuals establishing schools that don’t adequately serve the disability population.

“Parents should proceed with extreme caution. This program will create large financial incentive for vendors to seek this public money, and may attract unscrupulous providers who do not have children’s best interests at heart,” said Gray. “Likewise, we ask that the state exercise strong oversight to ensure children and families are protected.”

One portion of the legislation indicates that when parents accept this voucher, they forfeit certain protections under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

“By removing these kids from public school, parents may not understand the huge ramifications of surrendering their child’s rights under IDEA to free, public education. The state of Tennessee also loses a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance currently educating Tennessee’s children with special needs. This lost federal money will have a ripple effect throughout the state and will harm all special education students, even those who stay in public school,” said the TEA president.

“Every effort must be made to protect children and ensure the viability of programs approved to accept these new vouchers. Fraud in programs like this hurts both taxpayers and those whom the program is intended to serve.”