RALEIGH — Lawmakers and advocates for special needs children are concerned that Guilford County Schools may be undermining a law providing tax-funded scholarships for students with disabilities.
The school system recently denied recertification for a Special Education Scholarship Grant to rising seventh-grader Taylor Beason, a visually impaired student who had used the scholarship to help offset the cost of tuition at a private school where she was thriving. “It’s like she’s being punished for doing so well,” said Taylor’s mother Ashley. She added that denying Taylor the scholarship is contrary to the intent of the special-needs program.
“[Taylor’s] in fear she’s going to have to go back to the public school” where her grades were subpar in large class settings, Beason said. Because of her thick prescription glasses, she was the victim of bullies, and suffered from low self-esteem.
“She’s a straight-A student now,” getting more one-on-one instruction “in a more caring environment,” Beason said.
“I would think that the parents have a right to decide where that child goes,” said state Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson. She is senior director of The Arc of North Carolina, which has been working with the Beasons to ensure they do not lose the state scholarship that pays for Taylor’s private schooling.
“This might be a test case unfortunately, and it ties up time in litigation,” Farmer-Butterfield said. “If you have one party controlling whether or not the child gets the money, and there’s not a fair, objective body there to look at it from an objective point of view, that can pose problems.”
Farmer-Butterfield is concerned “what procedure or appeal process is in place … other than the school system.”
“We could have quite a few students who could be potentially affected by this … when they come up for recertification” every three years, said Gerri Smith, a parent advocate at The Arc who represented the Beason family at meetings with Guilford County Schools officials. Lower income students could lose their school choice, she said.
Julia Adams, assistant director of government relations for The Arc, who helped spearhead creation of the special needs scholarship program, said members of the General Assembly are troubled with the Guilford action. She hopes this is not a test case.
“Whenever we have to go back and renegotiate anything on this, it is still concerning to the Department of Public Instruction that we have vouchers in our state,” Adams said.
“While we cannot comment on a specific student’s situation without violating privacy laws, we can tell you that GCS works with private school staff and uses information from each school when making these important decisions,” said Guilford County Schools spokeswoman Nora Murray.
“Many times, a student can and does learn just as well as others despite his or her disability with a few small changes in the classroom setting,” Murray said.
“These changes, however, are not considered specialized instruction,” a primary trigger for the disability scholarship, Murray said.
“They’ve been a real bear to deal with,” Beason said of the Guilford school officials, despite advocacy from The Arc and support at school meetings from her aunt, state Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph. Beason also is working with state Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, an architect of the disability scholarship program.
The state allocates $4 million a year for the scholarship program. About 600 children are enrolled, 49 of them in Guilford County Schools. Parents are reimbursed up to $3,000 per semester.
Taylor has been able to attend Hayworth Christian School in High Point the past year and a half only because the program reimburses her annual tuition of $5,275, Beason said.
Taylor qualified for a scholarship because she received the required Individualized Education Program at her former public school. The IEP is a document confirming a student’s unique learning issues and establishing educational goals.
“Visually, she’s considered legally blind in one eye,” Beason said. She was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity — abnormal development of blood vessels in her retina. She has undergone “quite a few surgeries” for that and misalignment of her eye.
Guilford school officials formed an IEP team that concluded Taylor requires simple accommodations, not IEP specialized instruction, to succeed.
“This is an extraordinarily ridiculous situation,” Adams said, because Taylor previously underwent a rigorous IEP assessment process.
Guilford schools needed only to re-evaluate her to ensure she still had a disability and special education needs, Adams said, not start the IEP process from scratch.
What they have done in the Beason case “was not the intent of the legislation, and was never our intent,” Adams said. “We don’t want a child to be treated punitively because they’re successful in a placement that may be more appropriate for them.”
Smith of The Arc said private schools should keep detailed records of specialized instruction that show a progression to avoid more of these cases. They are not required to document that or set forth measurable IEP goals like public schools.
Smith said she is “95 percent sure” Taylor is receiving specialized instruction at Hayworth Christian, including much smaller class sizes and individualized attention that helped her to earn A’s, and is not just getting accommodations such as large print text or sitting closer to the chalkboard.
Bill Cox, associate senior director of the Division of Grants, Training, and Outreach at the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which handles the scholarships, said Taylor’s case is not unique.
“There are a lot of children who progress to the point where there’s no longer a reason for an evaluation. It’s what we found out as we worked with families and schools with this program,” Cox said.
“The re-evaluation is not related to the grant program. That is a completely separate process,” he said. “If the family gets a re-evaluation and the public schools say that the student has a disability, then that’s part of the eligibility for the grant program. But the two aren’t really related as to whether the child gets turned down.”
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.