Parents of Tennessee children with certain disabilities will likely have a new option next year. A bill headed to the governor’s desk would give 18,000 families access to the state and local money allocated for educating their child in public school.
First of all, the people behind the program are very careful about what it isn’t: a voucher. After all, the money won't be transferred directly from the state to a school. Instead, state representative Debra Moody says it should be called an Educational Savings Account, limited to students with autism, intellectual disabilities or serious physical impairments.
It's modeled after an Arizona program where parents are given a debit card to pay for schooling, therapies or homeschooling supplies from a list of approved providers.
But there’s one very big difference: in Arizona, a student can qualify for as much as $2,000 per month. Tennessee expects to pay out a much lower amount that Jonesboro Republican Matthew Hill considers inadequate. He worries that a lot of parents will see the program as a "golden ticket," remove their children from public school, then discover that $550 a month isn't much help.
The bill’s sponsors say the program isn’t meant to fully pay for services, but rather to help defray some costs for parents who don’t think the public schools are meeting their children’s needs. They also don't expect it to be the right fit for many families: sponsors estimate fewer than 5 percent of qualifying students will participate.
Florida and Arizona are the only states currently operating Educational Savings Accounts for disabled students, although bills to create them were introduced in 12 states this year. The Arizona program has been expanded several times since its creation in 2011; it now covers children of service members, foster kids, and any student making Ds and Fs.