- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 31, 2006

RICHMOND - Legislation proposed by a Virginia state senator would give parents of disabled children up to $10,000 a year toward private-school tuition and would write into state law a program offering tax credits for donating money toward educating the disabled.

The Tuition Assistance Grant Program for Students with Disabilities would give parents money depending on the severity of their child’s disability.

Grants would be available to families with students who have spent at least one year in public schools by 2008.

“It’s not an effort to compete with public schools,” said Sen. Walter A. Stosch, Henrico Republican and the bill’s sponsor. “It’s just a way for them to get specialized training that may not always be available in a public school.”

Changes to the Neighborhood Assistance Act would make permanent the $3 million tax-credit program, limited to two years under the current budget, he said.

The program is expected to generate $9 million in private funds, later channeled to private, nonsectarian schools serving the disabled, Mr. Stosch said.

In Virginia, disabled public-school students are taught using individualized education plans, or IEPs, which are crafted to meet a student’s unique needs.

Those can range from one-on-one instruction to special reinforcement exercises, said Patricia Meyer, a former special-education teacher who testified before lawmakers reviewing the bills in September.

Although most children respond well to IEPs, “there are some children who simply just don’t fit in a public-school setting,” she said. “Very often, autistic students do fall into this category.”

Lauren Pelegrino was in preschool when her parents learned she had autism, a developmental disability that meant she had trouble speaking and interacting.

She later stumbled through grade school, where mom Gail Pelegrino felt she was shortchanged by overwhelmed special-education teachers. Students, meanwhile, rejected her.

“She used to say to me, ‘Mommy, are you my friend?’” Mrs. Pelegrino recalled. “That just hurt me so badly.”

The Pelegrinos placed Lauren in Northstar Academy, a private Richmond school for disabled children.

Lauren, 17, is thriving. Still, the $13,000 yearly tuition is tough on the Glen Allen family.

“It certainly would help us out an awful lot if we could get grants,” Mrs. Pelegrino said.

In Virginia, parents who feel educators can’t meet their disabled student’s needs can petition the public-school system for reimbursement for private schooling, said Pete Wright, a Deltaville special-education attorney.

But Mr. Wright said that can be a long, bitter process that sometimes ends in court.

“One of the things we’re trying to avoid is the constant confrontations that occur between families and the school system,” Mr. Stosch said.

Virginia Education Association President Princess Moss, however, questioned a program that essentially would funnel public dollars to private schools.

She estimated that 174,000 Virginia students have IEPs.

“Multiply that figure times the $10,000 price tag of each voucher and add the administrative costs of the scholarship program,” she said. “We’re talking about a significant transfer of funds from the general fund to private schools.”

Moreover, Miss Moss worried that the lure of grant money would encourage parents to abandon public-school systems rather than petition them for money.

In the end, Miss Moss said parents will end up with less reimbursement than they could otherwise.

“The proposal has unintended consequences of shortchanging the very people the senator is trying to help,” Miss Moss said.

The Pelegrinos see it differently. They’re eager to apply for a grant they hope will help ease their financial burden.

Until then, Mrs. Pelegrino said they’re stretching their budget to educate Lauren, now an “A” student and a cheerleader with lots of friends.

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