by Gov. William Winter, Governor of Mississippi 1980-1984
The Mississippi House of Representatives took a bold step on Wednesday to protect Mississippi’s most vulnerable children by defeating The Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Act. The courageous lawmakers who voted against this act did so knowing full well that their protection of vulnerable children would likely be misrepresented by those who do not understand, or do not acknowledge, the full ramifications of this bill.
In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requiring that public schools identify and provide the necessary accommodations for all children with special needs to be able to fulfill their academic potential. In the decades since, public schools have made vast improvements to their special education programs, and they have become a lifeline to the families and children who rely on them. School are required by law to provide the services called for in a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
As school districts’ budgets have been decimated by consistent underfunding by our State Legislature, it has become increasingly difficult for them to provide every accommodation requested by every parent of a child with special needs. Understandably, those parents are angry. Public schools are provided between $1,200 and $2,000 per child to provide all accommodations needed, though the actual cost of the services is many times the amount, often $50,000 or more per child. Districts make up the balance with funds they receive through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
The solution would be for the Legislature to provide the funding required for schools to pay for the services. Instead, legislators proposed a bill that required parents of students with special needs to withdraw their children from public schools and relinquish their rights to federal protection in order to receive a $6,000 voucher to pay for private school tuition, therapy, or a host of other options.
Too many have fought for too long to ensure this legal protection for parents to be asked to relinquish the rights of their children to have their special needs met. Our obligation is to serve them. We must, as a people, provide their schools the means to do so.
The private schools proposed to be funded through vouchers were under no obligation to serve these children. They were explicitly guarded from oversight and were permitted to deny enrollment to children based upon ability or the school’s admissions policies. The bill even required that the private schools receiving taxpayer funding would not have their identities revealed.
By and large, the services required by children with special needs are not offered in private schools. They do not have teachers trained in special education or professional therapists who can meet their needs. Special schools that do offer such services charge tuition well in excel of $6,000, eliminating those as viable options for the overwhelming majority of Mississippi families.
The bill did not permit voucher-holders to home-school their children, insisting that they be enrolled in a school that would likely command the entire amount of the voucher, perhaps more, for tuition, leaving nothing for therapy or accommodations.
The most critical challenge confronting our state is to meet the educational needs of every child, regardless of ability, affluence, race, or creed. To believe that we can accomplish that by transferring state funding from public to private schools that are under no obligation to meet the needs of the children in their care is pure folly.
While it may be tempting to grasp the easy fix for a few, the tenets of a moral society demand that we do more.
Under-funding special education services for all in public schools, and proposing to fund a few, private schools that offer no services, puts children with special needs at serious risk of harm. The better solution is to provide the necessary funding to ensure an education worthy of all children who have set their sights on the stars.
William F. Winter is the former Democratic Governor of Mississippi (1980-1984)
Reprinted with permission from Governor Winter. The original appeared on April 18 in the DeSoto Times Tribune.