Report: Special-Needs Scholarships Save Money

Published March 1, 2010

Making it easier for Virginia’s parents to place their special-needs children in private school would not only help families faced with the daunting task of paying for the private education and unique services their children’s disabilities demand, but also would benefit school districts, a new study reports.

A report released December 30 by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy notes Florida has experienced a significant drop in requests for and actual number of due-process hearings since it implemented the McKay Scholarship Program, which began as a pilot program for special-needs students in Sarasota and has grown to include more than 19,000 students statewide.

Between the 2003-04 and 2007-08 school years, requests for due-process hearings concerning tuition assistance grants (TAGs) in the Sunshine State dropped by nearly one-fourth, and “fully adjudicated due process hearings” fell by 87 percent during the same period, said report author William Hurd.

“One of the great advantages of this grant program is that it allows parents and school systems to do away with all that dissension and to use more money for education and less money on litigation,” Hurd said in a conference call with reporters on his report, “Legal Consequences of a Tuition Assistance Grant Program for Students with Disabilities.”

Enhancing Parental Rights

Five states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Utah—have implemented state scholarship programs that make it easier for parents to get access to funds that, while often not paying the entire amount of a private education and services, give them access to schools that meet their children’s needs.

In his report, Hurd, a former Virginia solicitor general who devotes much of his current legal practice to representing families of special-needs children, seeks to bolster the case for bills proposed in Virginia over the past few years that would allow parents a $10,000 grant to obtain the education and services that best fit their families’ needs.

Hurd argues in his report a state-funded program offers easier access to—if a more limited amount of—funds than the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Plus, “parental rights are enhanced” by offering parents a choice between a state-run program or the IDEA.

Bringing Legislation

A leading legislative proponent for such grants in Virginia has been state Sen. Walter Stosch (R-Henrico), who since 2006 has repeatedly filed bills to create them. Some of his bills would include all children, others restricted TAGs to children diagnosed with autism. The economic arguments offered in opposition to Stosch’s legislation—such as that it would drain much-needed funds from public schools—were countered in a 2007 study by the institute, which concluded that not only would a special-needs scholarship program not harm public schools, it actually would give them a small windfall for each student.

Even though local districts would lose about $5,000 in state funding per child, they also would lose the expenses associated with providing services for the child while retaining other federal and local revenue streams.

Answering Objections

Hurd uses rigorous data and offers common-sense resolutions to counter a strategy by public school officials and the Virginia Education Association intended to sway lawmakers against Stosch’s bills.

Opponents claim, for example, parents could abuse the system by deciding midway through the school year to switch their child from the private school, which has already received the grant funding, back to a public school that would be obligated to accept the child and provide services.

That’s easy to solve, Hurd said, by requiring parents that choose this route to repay the grant on a prorated basis, or divide the grant payments into installments between the two semesters. If TAG opponents were really concerned about midyear transfers back to the public school system, he said, they would seek to amend Stosch’s bill, not kill it altogether.

“I’ve gone through the legal objections to this program,” Hurd said. “All are really without merit.”

Losing Parents

The federal IDEA, created 35 years ago, was meant to give parents of special-needs students more access to schools and services. But its bureaucratic hurdles have made appealing schools’ decisions concerning placement of special-needs children a foreboding process. Many parents—even those unhappy with their child’s circumstances—are apprehensive about wading into the quagmire.

“Life has given these parents an extra set of challenges. The school system shouldn’t add more to it,” said Judith “Tessie” Wilson, a member of the Board of Education of Fairfax County, Virginia since 2000, who has the unique perspective of being both the parent of a special-needs child and a school board member.

In the forward to Hurd’s report, Wilson wrote no one looks forward to a “clash of wills—from local [Individual Educational Placement] meetings to due process and even to the courtroom” that can sometimes occur when parents and schools disagree. Parents who request IEP hearings usually lose to the school districts, which have significant resources, experts, and attorneys.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, hearing officers ruled against parents in 82 percent of cases between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2009. Some Virginia school districts have even shown a willingness to spend profligately to defend themselves against parents’ claims. The Hanover County district recently was ordered to pay parents of an autistic child more than $330,000 in tuition reimbursement and attorneys’ fees in a four-year-old case that ended up costing the district more than 20 times the tuition in question. That sort of decision in favor of parents happens rarely. More often, participating in a fully adjudicated hearing means parents must risk losing and recouping none of their costs.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.