School voucher supporters and critics alike should agree on one point: Indiana’s expansive school choice program has revealed some flaws after four years in practice. Fixing them should be a priority in the next legislative session.
Officials at Southwest Allen County Schools pointed to one of those flaws at a recent meeting. Administration of special education funds and services has grown exasperatingly complex as voucher participation has grown. The responsibility falls on public schools even as the dollars flow to private and parochial schools.
“The issue is not the money as much as the responsibility for management of the Individualized Education Plan,” said Superintendent Phil Downs, noting that the money is intended to support a student not enrolled in his district. The situation places public schools in the position of taking legal and financial responsibility for another schools’ students, and diminishing the decision-making authority of the private school.
Public school districts have a long history of providing special education services to students enrolled in private and parochial schools. Since 1975, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has required public school districts to serve students with disabilities attending home schools or private schools within district boundaries, spending a proportionate share of their federal special ed funds on those students.
The issue for Southwest Allen and other Indiana districts involves the state’s share of special education dollars, known as Additional Pupil Count funds. It is money to provide services to students with disabilities, allocated on the basis of one of three disability levels generating reimbursement levels.
“We’re not saying the money shouldn’t go to private schools,” Downs noted. “The difference is the amount of money involved. They’ve basically opened up the tuition for the money to go to (voucher) schools, but they haven’t opened up the responsibility for the (case management) to go to these schools.”
He rightly notes it’s an inefficient method that ill-serves students and educators.
“It feels like meddling,” Downs said. “It would be easier if (the voucher schools) ran their own case conferences.”
Kirby Stahly, assistant superintendent of administrative services for East Allen County Schools, agreed.
“It adds additional work for school corporations to track and follow through to make sure they receive their appropriate level of funding,” he said.
Administration of special education programs always has been a complex task – and for good reason. Students with disabilities need the additional oversight to ensure they receive appropriate services. It’s worth noting that the federal government initially promised to provide 40 percent of the additional cost to educate students with disabilities, but appropriations always have fallen short.
School choice supporters enthusiastically embrace the idea of money following the child. It’s time for Indiana to consider applying the concept to special education funds, provided the necessary legal and financial responsibilities also follow those dollars to voucher schools.