In Mississippi, only 23 percent of special-needs students graduate high school.
That’s why state Rep. Carolyn Crawford (R-Pass Christian) introduced a bill this year allowing parents to enroll children in a private school, hire tutors and therapists, and otherwise tailor students’ education to their individual needs using their state funds
The bill failed.
The special-needs graduation rate “is unacceptable to me as a parent, and one would hope that it was unacceptable to the state of Mississippi,” Crawford said. “It wasn’t as important to the other legislators as I thought.”
Katie McCustion, a Tupelo, Mississippi, mother of a boy with dyslexia, fought with her school district over her son’s education.
‘Call It a Travesty Bill’
“As a parent, I don’t care if they call it a coupon program,” she said. “I don’t know why they’re stuck on the word ‘voucher.’ Whatever you want to call it—you can call it a travesty bill if you want to.”
McCustion said she would want her son, Ian, to attend school in the Tupelo Public School District if it could serve him. She wants to enroll him in a private school that serves dyslexic students but would transfer him back if the public school improves.
“They told me that, as a district, … because of budget, we can’t meet his needs so he can be on par [with other students],” she said. “I love this school. I’m not anti-district, but if I can’t meet the needs of my child, I need more options.”
Two weeks after Ian began kindergarten, his teacher could tell something was wrong. It turned out to be dyslexia, which afflicts roughly 20 percent of the public.
Struggling with School Administrators
Getting Ian diagnosed was a struggle, McCustion said. The school’s dyslexia coordinator resisted testing him several times, and when she finally did, she told McCustion that Ian’s age—then 5—could skew the test results.
Five-year-olds can be screened for dyslexia, McCustion learned later.
“I feel like I’ve done the research of someone who has a four-year degree,” she said. “They say the mom does better research than the FBI; that probably goes for education, too.”
Ian finally received an Individualized Education Plan, which outlined the accommodations the school would provide—but they were not implemented, his mother said.
As part of the IEP, Ian was supposed to take tests privately, in a separate room, because the presence of other students distracted him. One Friday afternoon, his mother came to take him to a therapy appointment and found him taking a math test in a corner of the classroom with the teacher, while the other students laughed and talked with a guest speaker.
This scenario is typical, McCustion said, and it has taken an emotional toll.
“In January of this year, he had a breakdown over reading a book, and he told me he was the slowest reader in his class,” McCustion said. “My son gets migraines because of this. He has stomach aches. He was throwing up last year. A kindergartener throwing up out of anxiety for going to school is wrong.”
McCustion and dozens of other parents rallied in Jackson, sharing their stories with lawmakers and calling on the legislature to pass the school choice bill.
The program was modeled on Arizona’s education savings accounts. Mississippi’s program initially would have been open to 500 families and allot $6,000 each—much less than it costs the public schools to educate them.
Opponents argued the state should increase funding for special education services in public schools.
“We are very concerned about the potential to cause great harm to the children with special needs and take advantage of them with these bills,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, a public-school advocacy group.
Failure to Enact
The bill failed in a second House vote.
“There was a consensus that something needed to be done, and this was the only bill that would have addressed that problem this year,” said Grant Callen, president of Empower Mississippi, a policy organization promoting education choice.
Some representatives who ultimately voted against the bill probably hoped it would be revised into something they could support, Callen said. He said he was not aware of other legislative initiatives to help kids with special needs.
“The groups that opposed this oppose any measure that would give parents options, and their solution to any educational problem is just more money,” he said. “Money has not solved our educational problems in decades.”
McCustion said she was eventually told Ian couldn’t be served, because of a lack of money.
Better Luck Next Time
Crawford said she is “absolutely” planning to push the bill again next year.
“I’m going to sponsor this bill until I get it passed,” she said. “We have some districts that follow state and federal guidelines and some great teachers in some districts, but we have some districts where they’re not able to do that, and it’s very difficult for our parents to get the services they need.”
“He’s going to be in this city, a citizen of this state, that’s what it’s about,” McCustion said of her son. “Is he a citizen that’s going to bring economy here? What if he was the next Steve Jobs?”
The Tupelo Public School District did not return calls for comment.