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.

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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.