by Allison Hertog
Mississippi recently became the first state in the nation to adopt a public and private school choice program in which state and federal monies are provided directly to schools which parents choose. Aimed at students with dyslexia, it’s also the second special needs school choice program in the country designed for children with a single type of disability. (Ohio’s Autism Scholarship Program enacted in 2003 was the first.)
What makes this new program interesting is that it may be a starting point for other state legislatures where special needs voucher bills have failed due to concerns about parent accountability – Wisconsin comes to mind – or where special needs voucher laws have come under increased scrutiny due to reports of private school abuse of public money – Florida comes to mind.
Mississippi’s program morphed from a dyslexia screening and treatment bill (supported by a governor who struggled with the learning disorder) into a school choice measure during the proverbial sausage-making legislative process. It’s not as carefully or as broadly designed as it could have been. It also appears there’s currently only one school in the state which is specialized enough to meet the exceedingly specific criteria to participate. But nonetheless, it succeeds in incentivizing the growth of more highly-accountable school options for parents.
Under the law, a parent of a child in grades 1 through 6 who has “dyslexia” (a specific learning disability which negatively impacts progress in reading) can access the scholarship in one of three ways: A) Getting his or her child screened and diagnosed with dyslexia in public school the prior year; B) Applying for the scholarship after spending the prior year as a student in a private school “which emphasizes instruction in dyslexia intervention;” or C) Getting his or her child admitted to a private school that is a state accredited “special purpose school” which is eligible to participate in the Mississippi Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship program.
Though the amount of the scholarship (which never reaches the hands of the parents) is limited to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program base student cost (about $5,000 per year), more public funds will flow to participating private schools because the state will provide “the proportionate share of monies generated under federal and state categorical aid programs to the participating school.” So, unlike the Romney education plan, which proposes that federal special education funds travel with kids to private schools, Mississippi’s program simply disburses those funds directly to the private schools. That provision of the Mississippi law would presumably exclude religious schools from participating in the program because under Zelman the state cannot directly fund such schools.
In exchange for these state and federal funds, participating private schools arguably become agents of the state – which will likely result in a host of unintended liability issues. For example, in public and private schools participating in the program, the state may extend the day or length of the school year; mandate curriculum in subject areas in addition to reading instruction, which is very clearly circumscribed by the law; and mandate the qualifications/licensure of certain school personnel. In addition, private schools must annually file a financial audit report and management letter with the state and presumably, though it is not addressed specifically in the law, administer the state standardized achievement test to their students.
In my post on redefinED last month, I argued for greater testing accountability for Florida’s McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. Mississippi’s program requires regulations of private schools way beyond what I believe is necessary to provide informed school choice and accountability to parents. But it is a unique model which deserves attention from policy makers, particularly in the special needs school choice arena.