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Students with dyslexia could get private school vouchers under Tennessee bill

An 8-year-old girl takes a hearing test with the help of a woman audiologist.

Eight-year-old Gigi Benassi, a moderately deaf student whose family receives a state voucher for private education services, gets a hearing test in Memphis on Jan. 30, 2020. Tennessee’s school voucher program for students with disabilities could double in size under a legislative proposal.

Jim Weber / Daily Memphian

Nearly 35,000 students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia would be eligible to participate in Tennessee’s school voucher program for students with disabilities, under a bill making its way through the legislature.

The proposal, which lawmakers in two finance committees voted to advance on Wednesday, would almost double the number of students now eligible to receive state money to pay for private education services. 

The 6-year-old Individualized Education Account program currently serves 284 students with disabilities that include autism, hearing and vision impairments, and traumatic brain injury. That’s less than 1% of currently eligible students statewide.

Even though 35,000 students would be newly eligible, only a fraction would be expected to sign up, at least at first.

State officials estimate the families of about 250 students would opt to participate and receive an average of $7,811 annually during the first year. Such an expansion would shift more than $2 million in state funding from public to private schools and vendors. 

Enrollees in the so-called IEA program must waive their rights and protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which mandates that all students receive a “free and appropriate” public education.

“We do believe most parents are going to be satisfied with where their child is,” said Rep. Debra Moody, a Covington Republican cosponsoring the bill with Sen. Ferrell Haile of Gallatin. “This is intended for those certain circumstances for a parent to step in and say this is not working, my school is not able to provide me with what I think would help my child.”

Under the 2015 law launching the program through the state education department, dyslexia was ultimately excluded in a compromise that appeased lawmakers wary of starting a school voucher program in Tennessee.

But fewer families have enrolled than expected. And in 2019, some participating parents complained about getting their reimbursements late and poor responsiveness from program administrators due to significant employee turnover within the department.

Two members of the House finance subcommittee, Republican Chairman Gary Hicks of Rogersville and Democratic Rep. Bob Freeman of Nashville, voiced concerns about program accountability.

“I have asked multiple different people to understand where this money is being spent today,” Freeman said during a Wednesday subcommittee meeting. “I still have not seen one list of any of the programs that any of these students are participating in.”

Moody, who cosponsored the original law, said the program is crucial to give families more education choices and promised to get answers for Freeman. “I would never have ever run a bill in the beginning that would not have had accountability to the taxpayers’ money,” she said.

IEA administrators regularly published reports about enrollment and expenditures during the program’s first three years, but has not since 2019 — and is not required to, according to a statement from the state education department.

“There are, however, many layers of internal approvals and accounting reviews, both inside and outside the IEA Program, that occur with each account holder expense report submission and payment disbursement,” the statement said.

Brian Blackley, a spokesman for the department, said the IEA office has been “revising and streamlining” systems and processes since late 2020, leading to faster approvals and disbursements. The office also holds weekly office hours for families and other stakeholders, he said.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis, said she opposes expanding the program as a matter of policy.

“I don’t like the fact that the private school that takes the dollars does not have to adhere to the same requirements that a public school would have to adhere to” under federal law, Akbari told the Senate Education Committee last month.

Students with dyslexia are also accounted for in Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed education funding overhaul, a student-based approach that would set aside additional per-pupil funding for those needing the most help, including students with disabilities.

If the legislature approves a new funding formula, the annual IEA reimbursement for enrollees is likely to increase, said Charlie Bufalino, assistant commissioner of policy and legislative affairs with the department.

Tennessee has been a battleground state in the bruising fight over private school vouchers between those who want to use taxpayer money to give parents more education choices and others who say that approach diverts money from already underfunded public schools.

A 2019 law to create a separate, broader education savings account program was declared unconstitutional by a Nashville judge because it applied only to students in Memphis and Nashville districts without local consent. The state appealed and is awaiting a ruling from the Tennessee Supreme Court.

To find the bill numbers and track the IEA legislation, visit here.

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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