Scholarship relieves families, could be drain on TPS budgetWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A new scholarship program intended to help children with disabilities might also harm public school budgets.
Up to 5 percent of Ohio’s children with identified disabilities could take scholarships — ranging from $7,196 to $20,000 per student — and use the funds to attend private schools they think better suit their needs.
Like pre-existing voucher programs such as the Autism or EdChoice Scholarships, the money will come out of public schools’ general funds that the state provides.
The goal of the program, called the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship, is to give parents the financial freedom to send their children to private schools or other public districts if they feel their children are not getting adequate attention at their present district. Families must apply by April 15 to enroll by August, or Nov. 15 to enroll by January, according to School Choice Ohio.
Awarded children must use the scholarship at one of the approved schools or service providers for the program. The Ohio Department of Education is in the process of identifying these venues, said Patrick Gallaway, spokesperson for the department. Fifteen schools in Lucas County have been approved providers for the Autism Scholarship since 2003.
Families with children who have special needs often feel boxed in, said Sarah Pechan, director of community programs at School Choice Ohio.
Private therapy and health care drain families’ budgets, which tends to make private school or switching districts financially impossible, Pechan said.
Jacqueline Sierra has paid $4,400 a year for four years to send her son Eddie, who has expressive and receptive speech difficulties, to a private school. She said her family is not in dire straits, but that the scholarship would be a relief for her and other families from the school. Some live from year to year not knowing whether they will be able to afford next year’s tuition, she said.
Students already enrolled in private schools, are eligible for the scholarship if they go to their resident district and obtain an Individualized Education Program assessment. This records the child’s level of development and what types of aid he or she needs.
Sierra’s family moved to the Toledo area from Findlay and Eddie attended public schools before the move.
“His self-esteem was really low,” Sierra said. “He would always come home and say, ‘I’m dumb.’ And I wanted to try this to see if maybe a private school would be more beneficial.”
Now Eddie attends Mary Immaculate School, a Catholic school that educates children with special needs and those who fall behind in more traditional settings.
Almost every member of the staff is a trained intervention specialist. Class sizes top off at about 15 students. The philosophy includes a hefty dose of sensory learning and social skill building, as well as customized care for each student.
Students exercise different areas of their brains in a room that looks like a dissected jungle gym. Mattresses and jumbo pillows cushion the floor beneath hooks that hold cloth swings and wooden bars to the ceiling. Blue, red and yellow colors pop from the chairs to the walls. There is a circular ball pit by the windows.
This — swinging, jumping, crawl-ing and climbing to focus the brain — is part of the answer for families like Eddie’s.
The other part is the environment. Principal Shelli Staudt said students who were otherwise embarrassed to talk before their classmates in a traditional setting often feel empowered to speak when their peers are more like them. Staudt has 47 students but said she’d like to fill classrooms with more. The recession has worked against her school, but she’s eyeing the Jon Peterson Scholarship to drive up numbers by at least 10 percent.
“I think it’s going to open doors to families who think they are stuck in a district that they feel isn’t serving their needs,” Staudt said.
At the same time, the scholarship might drive down numbers at public schools, depending on how many families take the money.
Toledo Public Schools (TPS) has consistently lost students to voucher programs — and the money follows the child. Forty-two students in the district have received the Autism Scholarship, a program that works like the Jon Peterson Scholarship that began in 2003. Awards range but the maximum is $20,000 per student.
Because of EdChoice, a program that allows students to leave a school under academic emergency or watch for two of the past three years, 1,885 students have left Toledo Public Schools and stayed at their private schools.
“This will fall in line with the other scholarships — we continue to come up with these ways of being able to drain and transfer money from the public schools,” said State Sen. Edna Brown, (D-11). “We will soon have very little money left to run our public schools.”
Closing the gap
Jim Gault, TPS’ chief academic officer, said he’s seen families leave and come back. Along with a list of nurses, special education teachers and counselors, TPS employs 35 speech and language pathologists, 33 one-one-one paraprofessionals, 13 occupational therapists, five physical therapists and seven sign language interpreters.
This is the pilot year for the “transformation plan,” in which the district is immersing these students in a typical classroom with their peers. The district has had separate classes for students with special needs up to this year. The goal is to close the gap that forges the disparity between students with special needs and the other students. Putting them in traditional classes — along with whatever aides they need — challenges these students to catch up with their peers, Gault said.
“There’s always a concern when you’re pulling dollars from public education that you may have parents who decide to go and try another avenue and then once they go, they take their dollars with them,” Gault said. “And when they decide to come back, the district may not have those dollars; it would make it tougher to provide the services we have.”
TPS is not aware yet of how many scholarships they will give out or what the monetary limit is. The rules are constantly evolving because the program is so new, Gault said.
The subject got little discussion even on the senate floor. The program was written into Gov. John Kasich’s budget this July, so, like other state-wide changes that become buried in budget bills, there was little vetting of this program, Brown said.
A similar bill was vetoed by former Gov. Ted Strickland in 2007, Pechan said.
Gault said Toledo Public Schools is trying to stay optimistic that families will stay in the district.
“If you go to our graduations, you’ll see students who are blind students, who are deaf students, who are in wheel chairs graduating,” Gault said. “That’s what makes public education public education and we’re proud of that.”