What Did They Just Do?

The Tennessee General Assembly today passed a bill to create a voucher system for students with IEPs. The plan was limited from its original scope to only apply to the most severe cases.

The vote in the House was particularly close, with 52 representatives voting in favor — 50 are required for passage.

What does the bill do?

If you ask the sponsors (and a number of members did), they really don’t know. Essentially, the legislation (HB138) creates individual education accounts of around $6600 to be provided to the parents or guardians who meet the qualifications in the amendment. They must have an IEP. Around 18,000 students (those with autism, blind or deaf, mental disabilities, and orthopedic disabilities) qualify.

A similar program in Florida, started in 1999, has been expanding rapidly. And, it’s been subject to fraud. When asked about what safeguards Tennessee’s plan will have, the sponsors said that the bill calls on the departments of education and health to qualify vendors. When asked what standards may be used to qualify vendors, the sponsors said they didn’t know.

When asked if the money will be distributed as a debit card or a bank account or a voucher, the sponsors didn’t know.

An important element of the bill is that any parent/guardian who accepts the voucher MUST forfeit their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That’s a pretty big deal. When asked what rights, exactly, parents would be forfeiting, Rep. Roger Kane, a co-sponsor, said, “They are all listed in the IDEA.”

Indeed they are. And it’s pretty important. The rights include:

The right of parents to receive a complete explanation of all the procedural safeguards available under IDEA and the procedures in the state for presenting complaints

Confidentiality and the right of parents to inspect and review the educational records of their child

The right of parents to participate in meetings related to the identification, evaluation, and placement of their child, and the provision of FAPE (a free appropriate public education) to their child

The right of parents to obtain an independent educational evaluation (IEE) of their child

The right of parents to receive “prior written notice” on matters relating to the identification, evaluation, or placement of their child, and the provision of FAPE to their child

The right of parents to give or deny their consent before the school may take certain action with respect to their child

The right of parents to disagree with decisions made by the school system on those issues

The right of parents and schools to use IDEA’s mechanisms for resolving disputes, including the right to appeal determinations

Depending on the child’s disability and a school system’s ability, the parents may be entitled to provision of services by private providers at school system expense. The advantage being that there is accountability to the LEA for providers offering the services.

So, forfeiting one’s IDEA rights is a big deal. And it could mean kids are not well-served by private providers.

An analysis of similar programs across the country found that none of them were subject to state testing to determine student outcomes and that accountability provisions were weak or non-existent. This analysis also noted that as early as 2003, Florida realized its 4-year-old program was subject to fraud. But this 2011 report highlights significant fraud ongoing in the expanding Florida program.

Just a four years ago, Tennessee authorized the creation of the Tennessee Virtual Academy operated by for-profit provider K-12, Inc. At the time, Senator Andy Berke warned of K-12, Inc.’s problems in operating virtual schools in Arizona. He asked how we could be sure there wouldn’t be fraud in Tennessee’s virtual school operated by K-12. The sponsor, Senator Dolores Gresham, said that the accountability would be built-in by the rules.

Yesterday, after $43 million spent on K-12, Inc. in Tennessee, Senator Gresham led the opposition to a last-ditch effort to keep K-12, Inc. open. To her credit, this was an admission that the experiment she had championed had failed. Gresham correctly noted that the Tennessee Virtual Academy was the worst performing school out of 1700 Tennessee schools.

Here’s the problem: Tennessee taxpayers won’t get their $43 million back. More importantly, the children who were poorly-served by TNVA can’t get their time back. They will return to other education environments behind their peers and possibly unable to complete school.

If the IEP voucher program fails, what will happen in two or three or four years to the children who were in the program? How will we ensure the accountability measures work for this program when they failed miserably for TNVA? And if the argument is that they worked for TNVA because the school is closing now, what happens to those kids who might lose years of their lives to a failed experiment?

What did the Tennessee General Assembly just do?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

14 thoughts on “What Did They Just Do?

  1. So do students with IEP’s qualifying as gifted and talented qualify? (or does anyone know?) If so, I suspect this is the group that voucher proponents are really courting. Students with significant special needs are very expensive to educate appropriately. $6600 won’t come close to buying a good education for student who truly needs quality special education services.

    • The amendment (linked in the post) lists the students who would qualify. Gifted and talented would not meet those definitions. The idea, I believe, is that the $6600 could be used toward the total cost of providing special education services.

  2. However, for those students targeted by the bill, almost anything would be a welcome change of pace educationally. As for rights, most educators and administrators have no idea what those rights mean and, in general, are more interested in their own views and programming than parent rights OR best benefit for the student.
    As for testing, most school psychologist prefer to simply write off on “cannot complete test” or argue that the testing they have available is not adequate and will not give reliable results… etc., and the nasty cycle goes on. Frustrated parents, frustrated educators, inadequate programs and classrooms and in the end uneducated students.

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  4. That’s disturbing. A big fat NO from me! It’s obvious the assembly does not consist of special needs parents. That bill should only be voted on by special needs parents… What a terrible thing to do!

    • Kimberly, yes it is more than disturbing that SPED students & parents will lose their rights & protections to FAPE if they go to a charter chain or private school. The immediate effects of this law opens the door to private profiteers, such as ASD, to do SPED education on the cheap while pretending to meet children with disabilities’ individual needs and sucking up pubic money.

      More chilling is that this voucher law has far reaching legal implications for how IEP programming will be implemented and what entity gains decision making power. The privatizers prefer top-down decisions- away from the IEP team. Parents, teachers, and researchers want the power of decisions made at the IEP-team meeting table.

      According to IDEA a signed & agreed upon IEP with INDIVIDUALIZED goals, objectives, and related services are binding. They must be implemented without regard to cost to the public school district. This voucher bill chips away at this requirement.

      Any legal code that puts distance between the IEP team’s decision making power at the school level and shifts that power to an outside party such as a charter CEO, the legislature, the Dept of Ed or to a single static test score sets up conditions to violate the intent of IDEA. IDEA protects education for the individual, not for the average test score or for profiteers.

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