News: CJ Exclusives

Budget Lowers Barriers For Disabled Students Getting Vouchers

Assessments could be performed by independent psychologists

RALEIGH — Lawmakers created “a pretty good fix” to a growing concern that school districts were bypassing the intent of a state law granting educational vouchers to disabled students to attend private schools, said House Budget Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Rob Bryan.

The Mecklenburg County Republican said conferees from the House and Senate agreed during budget discussions to ease barriers to recertifying students who must be re-evaluated every three years to confirm they still need special educational services provided through an Individualized Education Plan.

“Some of the money that was set aside for special needs scholarships was actually going back to paying for the testing” during the recertification process, Bryan said. That money now can be channeled back into scholarship funds.

Language added to House Bill 334 gives parents the option to forgo school district assessment and instead obtain the services of a licensed psychologist with a school psychology focus. The assessment would need to show services provided in the nonpublic school improved the student’s performance, and will continue to benefit the student.

Bryan said it was problematic that students who received an IEP and transferred to a private or other school where appropriate services were offered were told they had to repeat the rigorous IEP process. Some students were refused a new IEP and sent back to their original school that was not meeting their needs.

The revisions “should really eliminate the headache for everyone involved,” Bryan said.

Seventh-grader Taylor Beason was caught up in the recertification tangle at Guilford County Schools. She was deemed eligible for an IEP, and was attending Hayworth Christian School in High Point, where she became an A-student after struggling at her public school.

But the school district required her to go through the entire IEP process again, and said she no longer qualified for that designation or a disability scholarship that reimbursed up to $3,000 a semester toward the $5,275 annual tuition her parents had difficulty paying.

“I’m very positive, and very excited to hear that news,” Ashley Beason, Taylor’s mother, said of the legislative remedy.

“I feel like there is hope out there that this will change for us, and for other families, so they don’t have to go through what we had to go through,” Beason said.

She said she is still trying to determine “where we stand, and how we fit into that … move in the right direction.”

“I think this is a reasoned compromise. I believe it lives up to the spirit of the intent of the General Assembly when they passed the original legislation several years ago that the target would be to assist students with disabilities who had an IEP or qualified for an IEP,” said Julia Adams, spokeswoman for The Arc of North Carolina, which assisted the Beasons.

The bill would apply to all students assessed after Jan. 1, 2015.

Adams said the revision “supports the parents who have made the choice to seek a private education opportunity that may provide more options or may be a better fit for their child without the significant concerns that Mrs. Beason faced with her daughter.”

“Allowing licensed independent psychologists to re-evaluate students’ eligibility for a special needs scholarship is a sensible change to the law,” said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“School district staff are not the only ones qualified or capable of monitoring educational and therapeutic services provided to disabled students who are fortunate enough to receive a Special Education Scholarship Grant,” Stoops said.

“Now that many of the program’s legal, statutory, and operational issues have been resolved, it is time that lawmakers provide enough funding to satisfy the strong demand for scholarships,” Stoops said.

The state allocates $4 million a year for the scholarship program. About 600 children are enrolled.

A small boost to the program’s yearly appropriation would ensure that no qualified student is denied the opportunity to receive an education that best meets their needs, Stoops said. “It is simply the right thing to do.”

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.