- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A bill passed by Tennessee lawmakers could give parents of severely disabled children more than $6,000 a year to spend on education and therapies that they choose, though critics say the measure hands the money to parents with few safeguards.

Traditional vouchers give families whose children attend poor-performing public schools a way to pay for private schools. A measure in that vein failed this year, but lawmakers did approve the program for disabled children, giving parents much more freedom to determine how to spend the money. It is not clear if Gov. Bill Haslam will sign the bill into law.

The money, a combination of state and local funds, could be used for private school tuition, approved therapies and tutoring. Participating parents would waive their federal right to an Individualized Education Program, which mandates that public schools provide disability-related services designed to meet a student’s unique learning needs. Some worry that waiving that right means less money for both the child that leaves and the local school district because of the loss of federal dollars.

Public school officials and parents have plenty of concerns. Some worry that children will leave for private schools that are ill-equipped, only to come back and need even more help. They also say that the program siphons money away from public schools, effectively taking dollars away from disabled children who remain in public schools.

Some also were concerned about fly-by-night operations bilking the system. They aren’t sure $6,600 a year is enough to ensure standards will remain in place to make sure children get what they need.

But supporters say safeguards are in place. For instance, parents would have to choose from state-approved vendors. And some parents say it gives them options for children who simply can’t attend a traditional school.

Amy Gondolfo of Mt. Juliet said her 3-year-old son, Dylan, can’t attend school because he needs so much health care equipment that he would have to be taken there by ambulance. He was born with a rare heart condition, and she worries that public schools can’t give him the therapy he needs.

“And because he couldn’t physically attend the school, they wouldn’t pay for his physical therapy, and they also would only give him three hours a week with a home school teacher, which for a child who is as delayed as Dylan - he’s had two strokes and a heart attack - three hours a week is not sufficient,” she said.

Gondolfo said she would take the $6,600 a year to pay for more physical therapy and occupational therapy.

Cathy Sanford, a mother of two special needs children in Williamson County, worries that roughly $6,600 a year won’t go very far. Sanford’s 15-year-old son, Zane, doesn’t speak, has limited mobility and is intellectually disabled. Her 12-year-old daughter, Kate, has an intellectual disability as well, though the girl is fully included in a regular classroom with modified work. She said it has been a boon to Kate’s self-esteem because she’s not considered “other.” But she is concerned the new bill could threaten that arrangement.

“I think that parents who could find a placement for their child and chose to do that would siphon off money from the rest of us, and frankly my kids are really expensive to educate,” Sanford said.

Arizona first passed a bill giving parents education money and allowing them to customize its use for their children in 2011, and Florida and Mississippi have since passed similar laws, said Josh Cunningham, a senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Tennessee, parents would pay for services up front and be reimbursed, said Rep. Roger Kane, a Republican from Knoxville who co-sponsored the House bill. Only about 18,000 students would be eligible - generally those with the most severe disabilities - and Kane said the experience in other states has shown not all would apply.

The state Board of Education will write the rules for the program, which goes into effect in 2016, and the Department of Education would decide on an approved vendor list. Kane said he plans to monitor implementation if Haslam signs the bill.

“We’re in the trenches with these folks, and we’re going to make sure the Department of Education does the right thing for these children.”


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