Lawmakers puzzle over how to expand vouchers for students with disabilities without hurting local schools

Increasingly, Tennessee lawmakers say it’s common sense: When students leave public schools, taxpayer money for educating them should follow those students to pay for private educational services.

But when it comes to students who have never attended public schools, some of those same lawmakers are reticent to expect local districts to lose even more funding.

That tension is giving lawmakers pause over a proposal from Sen. Brian Kelsey to allow current private school students with disabilities to collect public money to pay for their tuition. Last week, members of the Senate Education Committee opted to roll Kelsey’s bill for a week to review the matter, even as they expressed eagerness to push the boundaries of school choice in Tennessee.

“The money follows the child. That’s non-negotiable,” declared Sen. Dolores Gresham, the panel’s Republican chairwoman from Somerville, who has supported several bills to give parents more control over public dollars.

On Wednesday, Gresham’s committee is scheduled to take up Kelsey’s proposal again to expand the state’s voucher-like special education program, called the Individualized Education Act. The program, which launched in January with 35 students, was created in 2015 by legislators who said it would empower public school parents to choose educational options for their children with disabilities.

Under current law, students must be enrolled in public school for a year, or be entering school as a kindergartener, before opting to collect up to $6,000 toward paying private school tuition or other private educational services. Kelsey wants to amend the program so parents of students already in private school can access public funds.

He said the bill came out of conversations with parents at Madonna Learning Center, a school in his hometown of Germantown that serves students with disabilities. “We had left certain children out, because we put a requirement in our bill … that students attend public school,” Kelsey said.

While no one opposed Kelsey’s bill last week, Gresham and Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville were among those who asked for a delayed vote after hearing Tennessee Assistant Education Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash testify that expanding the program would lower per-pupil spending for students remaining in public schools.

Clay Culpepper was among parents at Madonna Learning Center to speak in favor of Kelsey’s bill. A corporate attorney who is the father of an 8-year-old student at Madonna, he said parents who already have chosen private school for children with special needs deserve help from the state too — and that many other parents at Madonna barely scrape by to pay Madonna’s $13,000 annual tuition. He added that the true cost of educating most students far exceeds that amount and is subsidized through private fundraising.

“This is a big struggle and a big sacrifice to send our kids here,” Culpepper said.

Fiveash, who oversees policy for the Department of Education, said she is sympathetic to those parents, but that public schools would lose too much money if they pay for students who never enrolled in them. That’s because state and local funding is based on enrollment. If a student was never enrolled in public schools, local school districts would have to spend money to educate the student that they never had.

The bill’s fiscal note estimates that only about 18 private school students would take advantage of the program at an annual cost of about $137,000 to local districts statewide. But it also assumes that students would still transfer to public schools for at least 60 days so they could generate public funding. If private school students did not temporarily transfer to public schools before collecting public money, local schools would lose even more.

“(It) would lower the per-pupil amount for students still enrolled in a school district attending public schools,” Fiveash said.

That caused the senators, who had voted minutes before in favor of a school voucher bill unrelated to disabilities, to take pause.

“I’d like to see this work, but I also think we have a responsibility to our local school districts,” said Sen. Ferrell Haile, a Republican from Gallatin.

Voucher opponents say “following the money” is not easy. Even when students have generated government funding by attending public schools, losing them to private schools means fewer resources are available to pay for fixed costs.

That line of arguing has received little notice this year from lawmakers who are debating other tuition voucher bills that would impact even more students than the new program for students with disabilities.

“I do now understand the argument that, if a child never attends a public school to begin with, there are no funds generated for that child,” Kelsey said. “Right now is the first time I’m understanding the problem the Department of Education has.”

Still, Kelsey believes that lawmakers should find some way to help parents like his constituents at Madonna.

As of Tuesday, Kelsey had not amended his bill.