Special-Needs Scholarship Program Proposed in Kentucky

Published December 1, 2006

Kentucky state Rep. Stan Lee (R-Lexington) proposed a school choice bill for special-needs students this fall. If it passes, it will be the first school choice program of any kind in the state.

Lee’s plan would let parents of special-needs children use scholarships to send their kids to other public schools or participating private schools for better educational opportunities and services.

Under the legislation, parents would not have to hire a lawyer or go to court before sending their kids to another school. If it passes, the scholarship program will begin in fall 2007.

Lee pre-filed the legislation in September to kick-start discussion about the bill, which he will officially introduce in the legislature in January. He said early intervention is crucial in helping students overcome learning difficulties and that if his bill doesn’t pass, many special-needs students will be stuck in schools where they aren’t learning and progressing as they should be.

Saving Money

The proposed school choice program could save taxpayers an estimated $200 million over the next decade, according to a recent report, “Enable the Disabled: An Analysis of the Kentucky Students with Special Needs Scholarship Program.” The report was written by Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., an education policy analyst in Arizona, and Arwynn Mattix, a research assistant at the Goldwater Institute, a free-market think tank in Phoenix.

The report, released on November 6 by the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions (BIPPS), a free-market think tank in Kentucky, examines the bill’s potential financial impact on Kentucky’s public school system.

Jim Waters, BIPPS’ director of policy and communications, said he has heard from many parents of special-needs students who are frustrated with the current public school system’s use of a one-size-fits-all method to educate their children.

Waters said Kentucky’s learning-disabled children have been ignored and underserved. Kentucky has 109,000 K-12 children with learning disabilities, he said.

Opposing Reform

Opponents of the program include the Lexington Herald-Leader and Louisville Courier-Journal editorial boards. A September 15 Courier-Journal story reported that though the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) had not seen Lee’s proposal, the group planned to oppose it.

“How can that possibly be accepted when it comes to kids with tremendous disadvantages in life already?” Waters asked. He said the program isn’t just some theoretical concept to be debated–it’s something that will actually affect lives.

The KEA did not return calls seeking comment.

Arguing Premises

Under Lee’s program, special-needs students would get scholarships equal to the amount of money the state guarantees for every pupil, plus the extra money added on for each special-needs student.

Scholarship amounts would vary depending on the severity of the recipient’s disabilities, ranging from $4,350 to $11,752 per child. Similar scholarship programs are offered in other states, including Arizona, Florida, Ohio, and Utah.

A September 19 Lexington Herald-Leader editorial argued Lee’s proposed program is “an empty promise” and claimed that if proponents “cared about special-needs kids, they’d be pushing to improve the services and offerings in public schools.” The editorial also suggested the bill could result in a financial burden for public school districts because public transportation would have to be provided for students attending private schools.

Resolving Problems

Proponents of the legislation counter the scholarship program could reduce public school districts’ spending by nearly $50 million in administrative costs each year, by reducing the number of situations in which school staffers and lawyers face off with special-needs students’ parents to resolve disputes about where students can go for the best education. Those disputes sometimes drag on for years.

“One of the things that we hear a lot from education officials here is how much it costs to educate special-needs children,” Waters said. “Well, they should be on board with this bill then, because they’re not going to have the responsibility of providing education for many of them” if the bill passes.

Public schools still would receive federal and local funding under the program, Waters noted.

Paying More

About 2,500 special-needs children in Kentucky attend private schools, and about half of those students are there because the students’ school districts sent them there to get a better education than what the students’ public schools provided.

According to articles Lee has written, some parents of special-needs students pay up to $13,000–in addition to their tax dollars that go to the public school system they don’t use–to send their kids to private schools to get better education opportunities and improved services.

Waters said, “We just think that all parents of special-needs children should at least have that choice.”

“With the proposed scholarship program, parents and educators would no longer have to spend so much of their time filling out paperwork or navigating their way through bureaucratic red tape,” Murray said. “Instead, parents could concentrate on their children, and teachers could focus their talents back on the classroom.”

Hiring Lawyers

Lee points out that not everyone has the money to send a special-needs student to a private school or to hire a lawyer to fight a student’s public school district so the student may go to another school.

“Hiring a lawyer and taking time off from work to sue their children’s school district is not a viable option for most Kentucky families,” Murray agreed.

The Herald-Leader argued that one problem with Lee’s proposed plan is that “Kentucky’s constitution prohibits spending public money on private schools.”

Murray disagreed. “Denying special-needs students appropriate services or requiring dissatisfied parents to pay for services [that] their children should already be receiving from the public education system is also contrary to federal and state law,” she said.

With 2,500 special-needs students already attending private schools, Waters wondered how Lee’s proposed scholarship program could be considered unconstitutional.

“If it is, what’s going to happen to those 2,500 students?” Waters asked. “Is the judge going to say they have to go back [to the public schools]?”

Mary Susan Littlepage ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Chicago.

For more information …

2007 Kentucky House Bill 30, http://www.kentuckyvotes.org/Legislation.aspx?ID=47823

“Scholarship program would help special-needs children,” by Rep. Stan Lee, October 2, 2006, http://www.bipps.org/article.asp?id=669

“An Unthinkable Tragedy,” by Rep. Stan Lee, October 4, 2006, http://www.bipps.org/article.asp?id=670

“Different Agenda: Lee’s bill won’t help special-ed students,” Lexington Herald-Leader, September 19, 2006, http://www.kentucky.com/mld/kentucky/news/editorial/15552996.htm

“Special-education idea raises legal issues: Proposal OKs public money for private schools,” by Deborah Yetter, Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 2006, http://www.courier-journal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?aid=/20060915/news0104/609150389/1060/news0105