The statistics paint a bleak picture in Mississippi. Data accumulated in 2012 found that nearly 55,000 students age 6 to 21 were determined to have disabilities. Less than 30 percent of students under special education services graduated high school with a diploma, according the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) website. Anecdotal evidence is fraught with failed support services in schools, according to education experts.
Potential for big policy changes in the state are coming though. A combination of statistics and personal stories prompted Sen. Nancy Collins (R-Tupelo) to support legislation that would empower parents to ensure their disabled children received equitable education services in the state in the form of Senate Bill 2695. She is just one of several legislators proposing legal changes to support disabled students this session, after last year’s struggle over a voucher-like program.
Bills on the Table
A bipartisan effort, SB 2695, broadly mislabeled a voucher effort, sets up Education Scholarship Accounts for qualified families. Under the bill, parents have access to $7,000 in funds to customize their child’s education. Parents can use funds toward tuition at eligible private schools, therapy, curriculum, online courses and other vendors approved by a department of education-contracted non-profit agency.
Nearly identical to SB 2695 is a House version of the bill, introduced by Rep. Carolyn Crawford, which allows for the state’s DOE to approve vendors directly.
Senate Bill 2695 would draw on funds from the state’s general fund and not divert money from public school districts or the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
However, SB 2695 has its opposition, and opponents have come with what they view as an alternative to the bill.
Claiming concerns over funding placed potentially in private schools by parents, Parents Campaign of Mississippi leaders are attempting to counteract the bill by supporting House Bill 814, or Special Education Improvement Act of 2015. The Act would require redistribution of education funds and revamping allocation streams; special education funding would become a separate line item in the state’s budget and establishment of a new fund for disabled students to access additional authorized services.
“In the past, the Parents Campaign has always fought what would give parents more choice or control, it’s very perplexing,” said Grant Callen, president of Empower Mississippi, a grassroots effort to expand educational choice in the state. “Systemically, it takes more than just increasing the dollars to a particular area to solve a problem. The beauty of the special needs ESA program is it changes the person who is actually making decisions for a child.”
A separate House bill would increase legal services for special education students, but it is garnering less attention as students with disabilities have legal rights already in place in the state’s education system.
“There are already supposed to be attorneys supporting school districts,” Collins said. “I don’t think that will have much traction.”
Not a Voucher Bill
Multiple states have targeted special education, but the McKay Scholarship Program in Florida, is the longest-running statewide choice system for students with disabilities. The program has proven effective on many levels, Levesque said.
“From the early years, parental satisfaction surveys, [show] parental satisfaction increased just because they had options for their children, whether the student exercised their choice or not,” Levesque said. “Other research found that the actual performance of disabled students increased when there were more private school choice options in the geographic vicinity around that public school. School accountability and parental choice programs have led the country in gains of students with disabilities in the public school system as demonstrated on NAEP.”
Although big-name groups like Parents Campaign have spoken out against SB 2695, the bill does not direct funds to private schools, but parents’ hands through ESAs.
Calling ESAs a “newer instrument and choice option,” Levesque said the accounts do more than empower parents to personally design an education that meets their child’s needs. “The other concept with ESAs is to not only make annual decisions, but longer-term decisions.”
According to Collins, putting in place strong accountability measures was a top priority when crafting the bill.
“The state’s department of finance will manage the debit card used by the parents, and the state board of education will contract with a qualified non-profit, all scholarship accounts will be audited annually and randomly,” Collins said.
Furthermore, when parents do not use all of the funding in the accounts the money returns to the states and abuse of funds will cause removal from eligibility.
According to Callen, special needs parents have lit up social media in recent days, urging their legislators to support bills that would improve their children’s education outcomes.
“I am very encouraged about the likelihood of the Senate or House version of SB 2695 to pass,” Callen said.
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.
Image by Max Klingensmith.