Special needs students are legally entitled to free, appropriate public education services. In order to accept one of Mississippi's new $6,500 vouchers, they must waive that right – with potentially costly consequences.
When SB 2695, the “Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act,” was passed after an aggressive lobbying effort earlier this year, proponents hailed it as a solution for Mississippi’s underserved special needs children and their families.
It’s a sad fact that many of Mississippi’s 54,000 children with special needs (13 percent of all public school students) do not receive the support they need. Only 23 percent of special education students graduate with a proper high school diploma. Too many of the rest are placed on a track that ends in the juvenile justice system.
It is being rolled out as a pilot program, with 434 vouchers offered in each of the first two years (reduced from 500 due to administrative costs). However, only 235 eligible students signed up during the initial six weeks of registration, according to the Mississippi Department of Education’s most recent report.
Perhaps parents have realized what they have to give up in order to receive the voucher. SB 2695 stipulates that parents must sign an agreement “not to enroll their participating student in a public school and to acknowledge as part of the agreement that the home school district has provided clear notice to the parent that the participating student has no individual entitlement to a free appropriate public education from their home school district, including special education and related services, for as long as the student is participating in the program.”
In other words, the law requires parents to forfeit their child’s legal right to a free, specialized education in exchange for a voucher that may not cover the costs of adequate private services. For many, it is tantamount to Esau selling Jacob his birthright in exchange for a mess of pottage.
Federal and state law already entitles every special needs student to a “Free Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE) from their local public school district. As part of the FAPE guarantee, each child is eligible to receive specially-designed instruction to address the unique needs resulting from their disability. It ensures access to the general curriculum, including instruction provided in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings. This is called the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
A child’s IEP can include services such as speech-language therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, mobility services, and the provision of assistive devices such as specialized hardware and software — all designed to address the child’s unique needs.
These therapies and services can be extremely expensive, particularly if purchased by the hour rather than employing a full time provider as many school districts do. For example, the website costhelper.com states that speech therapy ranges from $100 to $250 per hour; physical therapy costs from $50 to $350 per hour; and occupational therapy runs from $50 to $400 per hour.
The new special needs voucher will provide parents with $6,500 from the state to purchase private services or pay private school tuition. Private providers are under no legal obligation to provide special education and related services that federal law guarantees for children in public schools. If the private provider fails to provide adequate services, the parent has no legal recourse. SB 2695 does not hold the alternative programs accountable for the quality of education purchased with the vouchers.
Of course, this assumes that parents can find a private school willing to accept their special needs child, which may be a struggle in some areas. Many private schools do not offer a full range of special education services, and those that do often charge more than the $6,500 allotment.
Jackson’s New Summit School, which provides high-quality special needs services, charges between $7,296 and $8,760 per year, according to a Jackson Free Press article on the voucher program. In general, tuition at a Mississippi private school averages $3,814 for elementary school and $6,921 for high school. The cost of any specialized care above what the school provides could come out of the $6,500 voucher, but parents must pay out of pocket once it is exhausted.
None of this is to say that special needs students are receiving proper care and instruction in public schools. Many are not, which would naturally lead parents to consider whether the voucher is a better deal. How can they decide whether taking the private option makes sense in their situation?
One way is to look at their child’s IEP and calculate the value of the services their child is receiving in the public schools. The type, amount, and frequency of services provided by the school should be listed in the the section titled “Special Education and Related Services.”
For instance, it might say Speech Language Therapy at one hour a session, three times a week. To replicate those services, the parent would have to pay for a private speech therapist. At the low end, speech therapy would cost approximately $300 per week, which would exhaust the full $6,500 voucher in week 23 of the normal 36-week school year. Parents would still be forced to pick up the full cost of tuition, transportation, and other specialized services their child might require. If they cannot cover additional costs out-of-pocket, only one option is left: return to public school.
Despite the problems in some programs, the public system offers one clear advantage: parents who are not satisfied with their child’s special education and services have ways to hold schools accountable. If conversations with the school’s administrators and teachers do not trigger needed changes, they have access to formal administrative procedures such as a due process complaint, established under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). If a school is not meeting its obligations, a court may order necessary improvements. In an instance in which a public school is incapable of meeting a child’s unique needs, courts can order the district to pay for the full cost of specialized private education and services — more than the $6,500 voucher provides.
Even if parents want to enroll their child in private school, there are good reasons to reject the state’s funds. If they do not take the voucher, private school students do not have to waive their federal protections. The local public school district retains its obligation to provide services to students with disabilities if the private school is not doing so adequately. A child could attend a private school but still have access to the public school’s speech therapist, for example. By forcing parents to waive their child’s FAPE rights, SB 2695 could have the perverse effect of making the cost of private education more expensive for parents who take the $6,500 voucher than those who do not.
These inconvenient details probably won’t dampen the enthusiasm of the voucher program’s supporters, who have espoused an ideological commitment to expand it to as many of Mississippi’s students as possible. They have found an ally in Gov. Phil Bryant, who has emphasized his support for giving students “options” rather than “more education bureaucracy.”
Inside schools, however, most special needs educators attribute the problems to overcrowded classes fueled by inadequate resources. As it happens, the most ardent proponents of vouchers have led opposition to fully funding Mississippi’s K-12 education formula. They have also rejected efforts aimed specifically at improving special education. Before passing SB 2695 this spring, legislative supporters voted down amendments that would have applied the voucher money to improve public special education programs and create a special fund for parents to pay for additional private services while keeping their child in public school. A separate bill would have established a office of special needs legal counsel to represent parents filing IDEA complaints at no charge, but it died in committee.
Supporters and opponents of these measures can find one area of agreement: it is shameful for Mississippi to fail to fulfill the promise of adequate education for any student with special needs. Waiving that promise is not a solution.