Scholarships for special needs students lower than expected

Published 10:47 am Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Demand so far has been low for $6,500 scholarships that Mississippi is awarding to parents of special education students to use in private or home schooling. The Mississippi Department of Education has approved 286 students so far, but provided reimbursement for only 131 students.

Lawmakers appropriated $3 million, enough for 433 students.

“I think they were expecting a lot more children,” state Superintendent Carey Wright told the Board of Education earlier this month. State officials said that some parents were unable to use the money because they couldn’t find private schools to accept special education students.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“We had a number of parents who called us and said, ‘Nobody would take my child,’” state special education director Gretchen Cagle told board members. “There’s not a huge supply of schools that will work for students who have significant needs.”

Early figures on reimbursements show that almost all of those who received the money enrolled students in private schools. It was unclear if anyone had used the money to buy supplies and services to educate them at home.

While 54 of the 144 districts across the state have at least one former special education student approved for the program, more than half of the students were from metropolitan Jackson or DeSoto County, urban areas with multiple private schools aimed at students with disabilities. Some rural residents either have no private schools nearby or they live near private schools that lack extensive special education programs. Every public school district is required to offer special education services.

Lincoln County School District Deputy Superintendent Letha Presley said earlier this year that the scholarships may not have much impact locally because the district’s special needs program provides assistance to students ages 3 to 21.

Presley said the developmental preschool was started several years ago.

She said at West Lincoln, the county has a building housing two teachers with their assistants who help special education students from the preschool program as well students in other grades.

“The teachers are really good and take care for the kids,” Presley said. “They’re a positive aspect of the special education program.”

School choice supporter Grant Callen, executive director of Empower Mississippi, cautions that it’s too early to judge whether the program can still be a success. He said applications opened after many parents had already made arrangements for their children for this school year.

“It’s going to take some time for the private marketplace to develop,” he said.

Callen noted, for example, that after lawmakers created an earlier program to pay for private schooling for dyslexic students, more schools are exploring programs for those students.

Martha Beard of Pelahatchie said her daughter Lanna is one student who has benefited from a special education scholarship, which covers most of her tuition at New Summit School in Jackson.

Beard said New Summit has a lower student-teacher ratio and programs tailored to students like Lanna, who has trouble processing and recalling information. Beard said she sees a big boost in her daughter’s self-confidence.

“It’s just night and day from the person she was to the person she is now,” she said.

Callen said Empower Mississippi will lobby in the upcoming legislative session to remove a provision that mandates that recipients must have been enrolled in public schools within the past 18 months, which would open the program to students who have always attended private schools. He said his group will also seek ways for the state to subsidize more students from struggling public schools who want to attend private schools.