While bills that would bring private school vouchers to Tennessee have grabbed headlines out of this year’s state legislature, a more far-reaching voucher initiative is making its way through legislative committees with little fanfare.

The Individualized Education Act would allow parents of students with special needs to use per-pupil funds provided by the state for “education-related expenses,” which could include private schooling, home schooling, textbooks and, if there’s money left over, college courses after graduation.

While the much-discussed voucher program for low-income students would affect 5,000 students during its first year, the Individualized Education Act could immediately affect any of the state’s more than 118,000 students who receive special education and related services through an Individualized Education Program (IEPs).

“It would be a huge, huge change for Tennessee,” said Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) shortly before the Senate Education Committee voted for the change last week.

The bill is scheduled for consideration Tuesday in the House Education Instruction and Programming Committee.

Similar legislation has been enacted in Florida and Arizona and is being considered in at least six other states.

Proponents say the voucher program would boost educational opportunities for disabled students by providing them with a customized education and a quality education that many aren’t receiving in public schools.

Others, however, have concerns about potentially encouraging families to leave public schools. Sherry Wilds, an attorney for Disability Rights Tennessee, said parents should tread carefully if the bill becomes law. Private schools aren’t regulated like public schools, she said, which means less regulation and less accountability. Because public schools get federal money through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), they are legally obligated to provide students with a “free appropriate public education.” When students leave public schools for schools not taking IDEA money, they waive this right — something that parents might not be aware of.

“We’re not saying we don’t like parents to have lots of choices,” Wilds said. “We just want to make sure that parents and students realize what they’re giving up.”

The bill counters much of the special education advocacy of the past few decades, which led to protections for students with disabilities through the IDEA: a push for special education students to be included in mainstream classroom environments, rather than segregated all day in special education classes.

“When you have segregated settings, there’s less likelihood that the student becomes used to being with peers without disabilities,” Wilds said. “Education should be about preparing students for the real world.”

Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), who eventually voted in favor of the bill, expressed initial concern that the program would cause further economic stratification of students.

Though in theory the law applies to about 14 percent of Tennessee’s student population, legislators predict few eligible parents would participate, since private schools and services likely would cost far more than the $6,000 voucher. For instance, tuition at Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood, which has a student population that includes youngsters with learning differences and learning disabilities, costs upwards of $38,000 for higher grades.

Chelle Baldwin and her daughter Rosie
PHOTO: Submitted
Chelle Baldwin with daughter Rosie

Chelle Baldwin, an education advocate whose 11-year-old autistic daughter attends West End Middle School in Nashville, believes the program would take money from school systems, leaving less for the special education students whose parents are unable to advocate for them, and therefore are most vulnerable.

The bill’s supporters say the measure would end up being almost cost-neutral, since districts no longer would have to spend money on students who opt to use the voucher.

Ronald Zimmer, who studies school choice at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, said that might be true, especially since schools sometimes aren’t allotted enough money to serve special education students. But, he continued, special education requires fixed costs, such as facilities and specially trained teachers, that won’t decrease if students leave with their funding.

Baldwin and her husband considered sending their daughter to a private school specializing in serving students with disabilities. But because of the cost, they opted for neighborhood public schools, where Rosie spends most of her day in general-education classrooms. Baldwin says they have never looked back.

“Public school’s been awesome to her,” said Baldwin, whose daughter also has intellectual and verbal disabilities. “It has opened her up in ways we couldn’t have imagined.”

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

John Kurnick, a Florida parent who traveled from Tampa last week to testify before lawmakers in Nashville, says the voucher policy is worth pursuing, though it creates additional work for parents. “That’s a small price to pay for the relief a family feels when you’re being supported to do the kinds of things that are necessary, that fill the niche, and help your special needs child, or special abilities child, do better early on,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story replaces an earlier version to provide additional clarifying information in the 13th graf about the student population at Currey Ingram Academy.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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