special needs

Want to keep school vouchers out of Tennessee? You’re too late

IEA is the acronym for the Individualized Education Act, the new Tennessee voucher law that takes effect in 2017 and provides students with certain disabilities with public money to pay for private education-related services.

While Tennessee’s legislature is engulfed in a contentious debate over whether to create a school voucher system, the state actually already has a voucher law in place that could impact even more students than under the bill being discussed.

Last year, the legislature passed a bill that allows the families of students with certain disabilities to receive public money to pay for physical therapy, private schooling, online learning and other eligible “education-related services.”

If approved, the voucher bill making headlines eventually could impact up to 20,000 low-income students annually in the state’s worst schools. Meanwhile, the existing voucher law has the potential to impact up to 22,000 disabled students each year in a demographic that crosses social, geographic and economic boundaries.

Known as the Individualized Education Act, or IEA, the law is scheduled to be implemented next January, and state officials have been working through all the details since Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation last spring. On Friday, the State Board of Education will cast its final vote on rules proposed by the State Department of Education to implement and oversee the program.

Under the law, families with a child with eligible disabilities can choose to receive an average of $6,000 annually in a special savings account to pay for services. But if they opt for the money, they must waive rights and protections granted under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which mandates that all students receive a “free and appropriate” public education, even if they are disabled.

As the measure moved through the legislature last year, special education advocates expressed concern that, in accepting the vouchers, families might not realize that they are waiving their federal rights under IDEA. So part of the work in implementing the law has been directed toward that concern. Under the proposed rules, parents would have to sign a contract with the Department of Education that includes a line stating that parents have received and read the rights that they are waiving.

Another concern is that parents won’t realize that the amount provided under the IEA voucher program is likely a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of private services.

"(Parents) need to understand if they take this and go to some private school and use it toward that, they're waiving their rights."Sherry Wilds, Disability Rights Tennessee

“It continues to be the concern that most of the disabilities that qualify are the high-cost disabilities and that is not going to scratch the surface of meeting their needs,” said Sherry Wilds, a senior attorney with Disability Rights Tennessee, which participated in the rulemaking. “(Parents) need to understand if they take this and go to some private school and use it toward that, they’re waiving their rights.”

Proponents, however, hail the new law as empowering for parents who say that public schools aren’t providing their disabled children with a high-quality customized education.

The new law ordered that advocates such as Wilds, many of whom didn’t agree with or have reservations about the IEA, be enlisted by the state to develop rules for the program.

“We really wanted feedback from people who work with these parents on a daily basis,” said Rebecca Wright, the state’s IEA director.

Among rules that have had to be worked out: deciding who gets the money, what services they can spend it on, and how the state will keep track of the spending. A lack of accountability and oversight are common criticisms to existing special education voucher programs.

“We need some accountability measures in place,” Wright said. “We need to make sure these are quality providers.”

Tennessee’s law was drafted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a think tank started in 2008 by former Florida governor and current Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. It sailed easily through the legislature, with sponsors promising that it could transform the lives of students with severe special needs such as Down syndrome and autism.

In leading the effort to implement the IEA, Wright and her staff looked at other states with similar programs — namely Florida and Arizona.


The oldest and best known special-education voucher initiative is Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, established in 1999 under Bush. That program — in which money can only be used for private schools — has dealt with accountabilty issues, including students using the money to go to private schools that don’t have full-time special education teachers. Even so, a proposal to expand the program appears to be on the fast track for passage in Florida’s legislature.

Wright said Tennessee is trying to learn from other states’ successes and mistakes.

“We don’t have anything to model it on,” Wright said. “It’s wrapping your head around how all the different pieces. How do we get each one into place by the time it needs to be to ensure that parents and students have a good experience?”

You can see the Department of Education’s overview of the IEA here.

Editors Note: This story is corrected with the proper name of “Disability Rights Tennessee,” which had previously been misidentified.

'indigenized' curriculum

Denver doesn’t graduate half of its Native American students. This charter school wants to change that.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Tanski Chrisjohn gets help adjusting the microphone at a school board meeting from Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

The Denver school district is not serving Native American students well. Fewer than one in four Native American sixth-graders were reading and writing on grade-level last year, according to state tests, and the high school graduation rate was just 48 percent.

Even though that percentage is lower than for black or Latino students, educator Terri Bissonette said it often feels as if no one is paying attention.

“Nobody says anything out loud,” said Bissonette, a member of the Gnoozhekaaning Anishinaabe tribe who graduated from Denver Public Schools and has worked in education for 20 years as a teacher and consultant. “We’re always listed as ‘others.’”

Bissonette aims to change that by opening a charter school called the American Indian Academy of Denver. The plan is to start in fall 2019 with 120 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and then expand into high school one grade at a time. Any interested student will be able to enroll, no matter their racial or ethnic background.

The Denver school board unanimously and enthusiastically approved the charter last week – which is notable given enrollment growth is slowing districtwide and some board members have expressed concerns about approving too many new schools.

But the American Indian Academy of Denver would be unlike any other school in the city. The curriculum would focus on science, technology, engineering, art, and math – or STEAM, as it’s known – and lessons would be taught through an indigenous lens.

Bissonette gives a poignant example. In sixth grade, state academic standards dictate students learn how European explorers came to North America.

“When you’re learning that unit, you’re on the boat,” Bissonette said. “I’d take that unit and I’d flip it. You’d be on the beach, and those boats would be coming.”

Antonio Garcia loves that example. The 17-year-old cites it when talking about why the school would be transformational for Native American youth, a population that has historically been forced – sometimes violently – to assimilate into white culture. For decades, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and their languages forbidden.

Garcia is a member of the Jicarilla Apache, Diné, Mexikah, and Maya tribes. A senior at Denver’s East High School, he recalls elementary school classmates asking if he lived in a teepee and teachers singling him out to share the indigenous perspective on that day’s lesson.

“Indigenous students don’t have a place in Denver Public Schools,” Garcia said. “We’re underrepresented. And when we are represented, it’s through tokenism.”

According to the official student count, 592 of Denver’s nearly 93,000 students this year are Native American. That’s less than 1 percent, although Bissonette suspects the number is actually higher because some families don’t tick the box for fear of being stigmatized or because they identify as both Native American and another race.

The district does provide extra support for Native American students. Four full-time and three part-time staff members coordinate mentorships, cultural events, college campus visits, and other services, according to district officials. In addition, five Denver schools are designated as Native American “focus schools.” The focus schools are meant to centralize the enrollment of Native American students, in part so they feel less isolated, officials said.

But it isn’t working that way. While the number of students at some of the schools is slightly higher than average, there isn’t a large concentration at any one of them. Supporters of the American Indian Academy of Denver hope the charter will serve that role.

“It’s very hard being the only Native person that my friends know,” second-grader Vivian Sheely told the school board last week. “It would be nice to see other families that look like my own.”

That sense of belonging is what Shannon Subryan wants for her children, too. Subryan and her daughters are members of the Navajo and Lakota tribes. Her 7-year-old, Cheyenne, has struggled to find a school that works for her. Because Cheyenne is quiet in class, Subryan said teachers have repeatedly suggested she be tested for learning disabilities.

“Our children are taught that listening before speaking is more valued than speaking right away,” Subryan said. “She understands everything. It’s just a cultural thing.”

After switching schools three times, Cheyenne ended up at a Denver elementary with a teacher who shares her Native American and Latina heritage. She’s thrived there, but Subryan worries what will happen when Cheyenne gets a new teacher next year. As soon as Cheyenne is old enough, Subryan plans to enroll her at the American Indian Academy of Denver.

In addition to the school’s “indigenized” curriculum, Bissonette envisions inviting elders into the classrooms to share stories and act as academic tutors, exposing students to traditional sports and games, and teaching them Native American languages. Above all, she said the school will work to hire high-quality teachers, whether they’re Native American or not.

The school is partly modeled on a successful charter school in New Mexico called the Native American Community Academy. Opened in 2006, it has a dual focus on academic rigor and student wellness. Last year, 71 percent of its graduates immediately enrolled in college, school officials said. In Denver, only 38 percent of Native American graduates immediately enrolled.

Several years ago, the New Mexico school launched a fellowship program for educators who want to open their own schools focused on better serving Native American students. Bissonette will be the first Colorado educator to be a fellow when she starts this year.

She and her founding board of directors are hoping to open the American Indian Academy of Denver in a private facility somewhere in southwest Denver. That region is home to the Denver Indian Center and has historically had a larger population of Native American families.

However, she said she and her board members realize the Native American population isn’t big enough to support a school alone. More than half of all Denver students are Latino, and they expect the school’s demographics to reflect that. Many Latino students also identify as indigenous, and Bissonette is confident they’ll be attracted to the model.

“This really is a school from us, about us,” she said.


School boards across Tennessee scrap TNReady scores from students’ grades

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

As the school year comes to a close following the standardized testing debacle that concluded in Tennessee this month, many school districts have decided the scores won’t count toward students’ final grades.

Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, will take up the issue Tuesday when the school board meets in a work session.

Earlier this year, the district was one of about half of the state’s school systems that reported to the state it likely would not use the scores because the results were not expected to be received at least five school days before the end of the year. But that early tally was unofficial.

“The survey was just to let us know what they were planning for so we could have a sense of what districts were planning on doing, but it was not binding in any way,” said Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Now, one by one, a growing number of districts are opting not to count the scores against students whenever the results are released.

This year’s online testing was plagued with a series of testing snafus, including login troubles, an apparent cyberattack, a dump truck cutting a fiber optic line and the wrong test being issued to some students. It’s the third year in a row that TNReady testing has gone wrong.

Bartlett City Schools decided during a special school board session last week not to use the scores on high school report cards after previously saying it would. So did the Franklin Special School District. The week before, Williamson County, Blount County, and Collierville school board members voted the same.

Millington Municipal Schools also will not be using the scores in that district’s final grades. But the district decided in December not to include the scores, said Stacy Ross, a spokesperson for the district.

“The decision was made because the scores from testing would not be back in time for final report cards,” Ross said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

It’s unclear of the 71 school districts that had initially said they planned to count the scores, how many have changed their minds.

Greene County is one of a few districts that has decided to count the scores as 15 percent of students’ final grades.

Before this year’s testing challenges, state law had required that the high school end-of-course exams count for 15 percent of a high school student’s final grade unless the scores came in too late for report cards.

But after the testing snafus, legislators left it in the hands of school boards to decide how much to count TNReady scores — if at all — toward students’ grades.

High school raw scores are expected to be delivered electronically to districts by May 22 and grades 3-8 scores are expected to be available by June 15, according to the state.