Tennessee to launch vouchers for students with disabilities

Rick Wagner • Aug 1, 2016 at 9:00 PM

NASHVILLE — A limited school voucher program to serve up to 22,000 students with disabilities in Tennessee is set to go into effect in 2017 following a 2015 law passed by the General Assembly. It will shift about $6,300 a year in state and some local funding to each participating student.

The Tennessee Department of Education announced Monday the launch of applications for its new Individualized Education Account (IEA) Program, which provides the opportunity for parents of eligible students with disabilities to access public education funds to choose the education opportunities that best meet their child’s own unique needs. 

“We believe this program is a unique opportunity to empower families to make decisions for their individual children as we continue our commitment to supporting all students as one of our five transformative priorities under Tennessee Succeeds,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a news release.

The department is accepting applications online for the program, which was sponsored by state Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and state Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, and adopted by the General Assembly on the last day of its 2015 session. It was opposed by the Tennessee School Boards Association. TSBA and the Kingsport school board have consistently gone on record opposing any voucher program putting public education funding into private schools. A similar program is in place in Florida, she said. 

“It is important that we ensure our most vulnerable children have access to a quality education that meets their unique needs,” Gresham said. Kingsport Board of Education Vice President Susan Lodal, former president of the TSBA, said the TSBA fought the legislation because it uses public money for private schools. Lodal said she could understand parents of special needs children wanting an option if what is being done isn’t working as well as they would like. However, she said she feared unscrupulous providers would promise more than they could deliver.

The new program provides parents of eligible students in grades K-12 the ability to choose approved educational services that they believe best fit the needs of their child. By participating in the IEA Program, parents agree to take full legal responsibility for the education of their child and waive all of their child’s rights to a public education, as well as services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Once participation is approved, a state-funded individualized education account will be created for the eligible student. Funds from each student’s IEA can be used for a variety of approved educational expenses, including private school tuition at schools approved to participate in the program, private tutoring and educational therapies. Parents can find a complete list of additional approved educational expenses, as well as criteria for entrance to the program, on the IEA webpage.

Because the program uses public education funds already assigned to each student, there is no cap on the number of eligible students who can participate. The funding disbursed into the student’s IEA is equal to per pupil state and local funds for the district where the student resides and is zoned to attend school. This amount does not include federal funds or additional education funds that local governments contribute to the school district. The average amount of the IEA annual payment is approximately $6,300, but will vary per district, the release said.

“The $6,300 will not even begin to approach the options we have in the public schools,” Lodal said.

Parents can now visit the online portal to submit an application for their child. This statewide program will go into effect in January 2017, with parents getting access to the first accounts for use Jan. 1, 2017. For more information about the IEA Program, including parent resources and answers to frequently asked questions, visit the IEA webpage on the department’s website, tn.gov/education/.

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