Organizations that serve children with disabilities are uncertain about how many parents will sign up for the “individualized education accounts” that will offer them state funds toward schooling costs, reports the Commercial Appeal. The bill (SB27) was approved by the legislature last week and the article cites Shelby County private schools, such as Madonna Learning Center, were officials are preparing to potentially served many more students.
Tennessee is now one of 11 states that allows parents of special education students to have state and local funds for their children’s schooling deposited in a portable account they can use to buy services in the private sector or provide the education at home and hire tutors, occupational therapists and other experts to help.
The fund in Shelby County would be worth about $6,600 a year per child. At Madonna Learning Center, temporarily located at Hope Presbyterian Church in Cordova while its Germantown campus undergoes construction, that’s more than half the tuition.
“We have a lot of parents who tour our facility and want to attend, but because of financial restraints, are unable,” said executive director Jo Gilbert.
“It also would benefit students already attending our school, making it easier for parents who are paying tuition.”
It’s impossible for Gilbert to predict how popular the savings accounts will be by the time they go into effect in the 2016-2017 school year. But at The Bodine School in Germantown, a private school that serves children with dyslexia, there will be no portable accounts for families of children with specific learning disabilities, by far the largest category of special needs children.
“On April 21, 2015, the Senate adopted an amendment outlining that all children with a disability, as defined in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, be included in this effort,” said Josh Clark, head of the school.
The next day, an amendment limited the kinds of disabilities that qualified, eliminating children with ADHD, dyslexia and other broad categories and reducing the number of children eligible from 120,000 to 18,000.
“While we are encouraged to see the state interested in creating solutions to reach students with special needs such as autism, deaf-blindness and hearing impairments, we are very disappointed to see approximately 102,000 children — the estimated number of students with a specific learning disability in Tennessee — left without the state’s support,” Clark said in an e-mail.
…Districts will save money if their special education numbers fall because in most cases, it costs more than $6,600 to provide the expertise the students require.
Districts on average spend $2,500 more per special education child.
“That’s $2,500 those districts are going to save per student,” said Ashley Ball, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
While the law says that students in grades 3-8 must take the state TCAP exam or some other nationally normed test, it’s not clear yet who will be responsible for the testing if the private provider doesn’t offer it. No one yet knows what standards vendors will have to meet to qualify.
“We’re still developing the process for that it will look like when vendors apply,” Ball said. “The session just ended, so we are starting from scratch on this.”
Note: See also WPLN, which notes proponents of the bill do not like to see subsidy described as a voucher.
Instead, state representative Debra Moody says it should be called an Educational Savings Account, limited to students with autism, intellectual disabilities or serious physical impairments.
It’s modeled after an Arizona program where parents are given a debit card to pay for schooling, therapies or homeschooling supplies from a list of approved providers.
But there’s one very big difference: in Arizona, a student can qualify for as much as 2-thousand dollars per month. Tennessee expects to pay out a much lower amount that Jonesboro Republican Matthew Hill considers inadequate. He worries a lot of parents will see the program as a “golden ticket,” remove their children from public school, then discover that $550 a month isn’t much help.