Legislature approves vouchers for students with severe disabilities

One day after a school voucher program for low-income students fizzled in the House, a similar program for students with disabilities cleared its final hurdle in the state legislature, potentially impacting 18,000 students across Tennessee.

The House voted 52-43 on Wednesday in favor of the Individualized Education Act, following the Senate’s approval by a vote of 27-3.

If Gov. Bill Haslam signs the legislation into law, the program will provide families of students with certain special needs a bank account holding local and state funds to be used for “education-related expenses” such as physical therapy, private schooling, home schooling, textbooks and even college courses after graduation from high school.

The original legislation would have applied to about 118,000 public school students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for disabilities ranging from attention deficit disorder (ADD) to Down syndrome. However, Sen. Delores Gresham, the Senate sponsor, amended the bill so it would apply to 18,000 students with the most severe disabilities.

Proponents say the voucher program will boost educational opportunities for disabled students by providing them with a customized education that is of higher quality than what they receive in public schools. Others, however, have concerns about parents inadvertently waiving rights and protections granted to special education students in public schools under federal law.

Special education experts also have cautioned against such voucher programs, citing research that special education students should be included whenever possible in mainstream classroom environments, rather than segregated all day in special education classes.

With Haslam’s signature, the bill would go into effect next January, impacting more students than the now-dead voucher program for low-income students to attend private schools, which would have impacted 5,000 students in only five school districts — or about 5 percent of Tennessee students — in its first year. However, the comptroller of Tennessee predicts few eligible parents will participate in the IEA program, since it provides parents with about $6,000 per student, far less than the cost of most private schools or special education services.

Rep. Debra Moody (R-Covington), who sponsored the bill in the House, said the voucher program would empower parents who have the time and financial wherewithal to use it. “A parent is the best advocate in most cases for their child,” she said.

Concerns were raised that vouchers would siphon off money from public schools, although the bill’s fiscal note says local districts actually would make money from such legislation because of the high costs associated with educating special education students.

During Senate debate on Tuesday, Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) said he decided to vote against the bill after speaking with his district’s four school directors, who all oppose the program. He read a letter from Maryville City Schools Director Mike Winstead that said: “Removing that child from the classroom does not decrease the funds needed to operate that classroom. Expenditures will not decrease unless we see a significant number of students leave our schools, which does not seem likely.”

However, Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) dismissed that argument. “This bill is not going to open the door to destroy our local school districts, destroy public education, but it’s going to offer a choice to parents who may feel like their special needs child is not being served currently by the public school system,” he said.

During House discussion on Wednesday, Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) worried that state funds deposited in a savings account — equating to about $550 a month — would not be enough to make a difference for most families.

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

“I just don’t want this bill, which I know is well-intentioned, … to be perceived by parents as a golden ticket, and then realize it’s only $550 a month and we have a big old disaster on their hands,” Hill said. “At the end of the day, everybody would agree that $550 is nowhere close to what is needed, or what students are receiving currently in our public schools.”

Rep. John Forgety voiced concerns about accountability, saying that a similar program in Florida has occasionally gotten out of control.

Mississippi became the third state to implement a similar policy earlier this week.

If the bill becomes law in Tennessee, the State Board of Education will be charged with formulating rules and accountability measures for the program.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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