Monday, March 17, 2008

Post-Dispatch letters dismiss concerns of parents

It was sad to see the letters in today’s Post-Dispatch criticizing parents of special needs children for not doing enough, and misconstruing the effects of a bill that would benefit Missouri’s special needs students. I don’t know if they were sent out of fear or ignorance, but I hope the Post-Dispatch gives parents a chance to respond.

One letter was from Kenneth Eigenberg, the Secretary of the Special School District Board of Education, which advocates against choices for special needs parents. The Post-Dispatch already aired their complaints last week, and this looks like much of the same political rhetoric.

I’ll touch on some points:

First, Eigenberg says “Legislation creating tuition tax credits or vouchers — in particular Senate Bill 993 and House Bill 1886 — potentially harms special education students, removes public oversight and protections and detracts from other programs that could better serve student needs. The proposed legislation lacks accountability needed to protect vulnerable children and to ensure public-supported funds are well spent. Investigating a similar model program in Florida, the Palm Beach Post reported that ‘77 percent of participating schools have no special programs for disabled children.’”

Once again, the Post-Dispatch allows a tuition tax credit to be called a voucher, when in reality they are quite different. Secondly, the funds are not publicly supported, because they are not vouchers: the fund would be from donations, and those donors would receive a tax credit for 80% of their donation. Schools would be accountable to parents through regular reporting and would be subject to non-discrimination and various other financial and achievement benchmarks which, if not met, would keep a school from being eligible to receive scholarships from this program. Furthermore, it allows the amount spent on a special needs child to be used at the best school for their disability, which can make a huge difference in a child’s life, as Patrice Cahalan would tell you.

Florida’s Program tells a much different story than presented here. The McKay scholarship tax credit has grown leaps and bound in both funding and enrollment. This type of program even helps children who want to attend a public school outside of their residential district by assists families by not forcing them to move in order to get a certain program. There is an overwhelming level of satisfaction from parents with new schools as compared with the previous assigned public school, which suggests that parents were by far happier with their child’s success at the school they chose even if it wasn’t created for disabled students—an interesting thought to consider.

To sweep up the few remaining points, we use tax credits all the time—they are not new. We use them for almost every public good BUT K-12 education. Eigenberg is wrong to say that tax credits cost revenue—they are revenue neutral, and Florida has actually seen a budget savings of $113 million from their McKay scholarships.

I believe that the Special School District offers parents in the area a much-needed choice, and serves them well. But offering more choices for parents can only ensure that every child is getting the best education available, and that should be at the core of the SSD’s values and advocacy.

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