IEP Vouchers in TN

Today, the Tennessee General Assembly’s House Budget Subcommittee passed an amended version of a voucher program for students with IEPs – Individualized Education Plans.

The original bill would have provided an “education account” to the parent/guardian of any student with an IEP – $6600 to be spent on special education services, including schools, home schooling using approved curriculum, and other means of providing for the child’s education.

The parent would have to agree to forfeit their rights under IDEA and not hold the local school system accountable for providing special education services.

As initially proposed, 120,000 Tennessee students would have been eligible. As amended today, the bill applies to only 18,000 students. Those students include children with Autism, Down’s Syndrome and other severe mental disabilities, deaf and blind children, and those with severe physical disabilities. Additionally, the amendment calls for strict rules governing both who can receive the voucher (which comes in the form of deposits made into a separate bank account administered by the parent/guardian) and which schools can qualify.

Similar programs in both Florida and Arizona started small and expanded — Florida’s now costs more than $150 million annually. And the Florida program has been plagued with fraud and abuse.

Sara Mead with Education Sector studied the Florida plan and notes:

But despite its growing popularity, the McKay program has not yet proven that it works as either an adequate school-choice or special-education reform measure. Unlike with Florida’s other school choice options, the state collects very little information from schools and students participating in the McKay program. McKay students do not have to take the annual state tests administered to public school students, and McKay schools are not required to report any information on student outcomes—which goes against the national trend toward standards and accountability in public education. Thus, it is virtually impossible to say whether special-needs children using McKay vouchers to attend private schools are faring better, worse, or about the same as they had in their old public schools. It is also difficult to determine whether the McKay program is improving existing special-education services, since, unlike public schools, McKay schools are not required to provide these services at all.

In spite of Florida’s efforts to build in accountability, the program has seen its share of fraud:

…here is what went on at South Florida Prep, according to parents, students, teachers, and public records: Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

There is no accreditation requirement for McKay schools. And without curriculum regulations, the DOE can’t yank back its money if students are discovered to be spending their days filling out workbooks, watching B-movies, or frolicking in the park. In one “business management” class, students shook cans for coins on street corners.

While Tennessee’s legislation promises some level of accountability standards, Florida’s plan also has accountability measures that apparently go unenforced. When fraud is detected, it is usually after funds have been disbursed for a year or more.

The limitations of the amended bill are important. They restrict the program to those kids most in need of a high level of service. But if the accountability measures aren’t properly designed and carefully implemented, Tennessee’s program could see the same kind of fraud that Florida has seen. That’s bad for both kids and taxpayers.

For more on education policy issues, follow @TheAndySpears



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