2012 Summary of Parental Options Legislation

In 2012, Louisiana experienced some of the most significant shifts to education in history.  The most dramatic shift and the issue that drew the fire from parents of children with significant disabilities was the expansion of using public funds to cover tuition in private schools.  There were two existing scholarship programs expanded this session.  The major scholarship program is designed to allow students from low-income households attending low performing schools to attend private schools or higher performing public schools.  Another scholarship program is specifically designated for students with certain disability classifications.

The major scholarship program was part of a massive multipart bill (Act 2 (HB976) that will use funds designated for public schools (the Minimum Foundation Program or MFP) to cover private school tuition for students from low to middle-income households previously attending schools that received a letter grade of “C”, “D”, or “F”.  Technically there is an option of selecting a public school that has earned an “A” or “B”; however only one public school indicated it will participate.  While participating, private schools must accept all students; however they are not required to provide special education services beyond those already offered.  And since the majority of private schools do not offer a significant amount of special education services and those that do tend to be in segregated settings, the options for parents of students with significant disabilities in this program appear severely restricted.  Parents testifying to the legislative committees considering this scholarship bill expressed that they felt this plan limits their options to keeping their children in a failing school, sending them to a segregated school or sending them to a school that would not provide the supports and services their children need to succeed.
 
Another bill, Act 424/ HB 911, expanded the School Choice Program for Certain Students with Exceptionalities.  This program provides an educational certificate equal to half of the state share of the MFP (between $2,000 to $2,800 depending on the school district) for each student to cover part of the cost of private school tuition for that student.  Parents are responsible for the remainder of the tuition.  Given the ever shrinking funding streams that have caused reductions to existing programs critical to people with developmental disabilities (i.e. NOW slots, EarlySteps, etc.) it is difficult to comprehend how the legislature and administration will dedicate unmatched state dollars to supplement private school tuition (see fiscal note).  The program will continue to only support private schools in parishes with populations over 190,000 but will now allow students from neighboring parishes, including those through high school, to receive this financial support toward their private education.  Only students identified with autism, mental disabilities, emotional disturbance, developmental delay, other health impairment, specific learning disabilities, or traumatic brain injury who have an Individual Education Plan are eligible to participate.  It is not clear why students with deaf-blindness, hearing impairments, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairments or visual impairments were excluded from being allowed to participate in this School Choice Program.  Discussions during legislative committee hearings on Act 424 revealed that this program is one mechanism to encourage and endorse segregated private schools for students with disabilities.  This movement toward segregated settings is a huge step backwards from years of efforts in Louisiana toward creating inclusive communities.
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