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New Special Ed Vouchers Give Parents Options, Worry Public Schools

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Monday, February 20, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Ohio is expanding its voucher program to include all students with special needs. The state already offers vouchers to autistic students, and those living in a failing public school district.

Corinn Link and her mom Kari say they'll definitely apply for the new scholarship program. The extra funding would allow Corinn to attend a small, private Catholic high school where she feels she can get plenty of attention and support with her reading comprehension.

Sixteen years ago, Ohio piloted its first voucher program in Cleveland. That initial program has expanded significantly in the last decade. Today, the state offers taxpayer funded vouchers to students in failing public schools to attend private schools, as well as for students with autism.

Now the state is expanding the program to include all special education students with the new John Peterson Special Needs Scholarship.

This latest voucher program expansion is good news for some families with special needs children who could use the financial support, but it is also alarming to the local public schools those families are leaving behind.

[audio href="" title="Ohio Launches New Voucher Program for Special Needs Kids"]This is the third expansion of the state's voucher program, offering special needs students up to $20,000.[/audio]

When Corinn Link was in third grade, her teachers noticed that she had unusual trouble with reading comprehension.

But you wouldn't know it from listening to her read today. Thanks to the help of a tutor, the eighth grader now reads nearly at grade level.

Corinn starts high school next year, and hopes that a small Catholic school like Villa Angela Saint Joseph on Cleveland’s East side will help her continue her progress.

"I picked the school because it was a smaller class size and they would have the extra help that I would need there,” she explains.

Corinn’s mother, Kari says they’ll be applying for the new voucher program aimed at helping special ed students. Corinn is eligible for $ 7,600 which just about covers tuition at Villa Angela Saint Joseph. Under the old voucher system, the Links would have had to pay the entire tuition. That would be out of reach for Kari, a single mom of two.

Kari says the scholarship gives them the ability to chose what school Corinn attends, based on her need.

“I think it’s opening up doors for parents and kids with disabilities. It’s allowing kids to go places to schools that they may not have had a chance to go to.”

–Kari Link, mother of a special needs child.

"I think it’s opening up doors for parents and kids with disabilities," Kari says. "It’s allowing kids to go places to schools that they may not have had a chance to go to.”

This is the third expansion of Ohio's voucher program. In 2004 kids with autism became eligible to receive vouchers for private schools. Then, in 2006, the program was expanded to kids in failing public schools.

Now all special needs students attending any school are eligible for vouchers for up to $20,000, depending on the severity of their disability.

Autistic students at Youngstown Christian Academy work one-on-one with a tutor. The school became an official special needs provider to meed the high demand of autism voucher students.

Roughly ten percent of the student population at Youngstown Christian Academy is special needs, says school president Mike Pecchia. The school became a state approved special needs provider to meet the demand of students on the autism scholarship, and Pecchia says he expects the schools' special needs population to increase with the new voucher program.

Pecchia says the voucher program have "been good for us" financially.

The school is already planning some renovations and expansions to meet the increased demand.

Still, Youngstown Christian is not a big school by any means. There are just 475 students in grades K-12, and Pecchia says parents are drawn to the school's small size.

That, and he says it's important to parents that their children are “progressing educationally but they’re also eating lunch with kids, they’re in gym class with kids where I think a lot of what their experiences were in the public schools was that they weren’t doing that. They were sort of isolated.”

Deb Dennis takes issue with that last point.

Deb Dennis is director of special education at Avon Schools. She says public schools work hard to provide special needs students with quality service, something she feels many private schools cannot compete with.

She is the director of special needs’ services at the public Avon Schools on the West Side of Cleveland.

Dennis says the special needs teachers at Avon "work hard to really keep up with everything that’s going on with special education and provide what is, in our opinion really strong programming, so what's frustrating is when someone walks away from that to something that in our opinion isn’t quite as strong.”

Dennis was not happy to hear the state’s voucher program is expanding – again.

That's because public school districts have to write yearly special individual education programs, known as IEP’s, for special needs students even if they attend a private school. And it’s the public school, not the private school the child attends, that has to monitor the progress of the student and update the plan each year.

“My first thought is frustration because it puts some responsibility on the school for kids that they won’t really know," says Dennis.

The private schools and parents are supposed to communicate regularly with the student’s home district through progress reports.

[related_content align="right"]What makes that pill even harder for public schools to swallow is the financial hit they take. Students who use the new voucher program will take up to $20,000 of their state funding from their local public school district to a private school, tutor, or other approved provider.

Cheryl Bowsier is the special needs outreach coordinator for School Choice Ohio, a Columbus based advocacy group that supports vouchers and charter schools. Bowsier says that's the way it should be.

“Basically the check will go to the provider with the parent who will have to sign off on it also," she explains. "But we try to make it not about the money but what’s best for that child.”

Bowsier says public schools get extra funding for special needs students, and that funding should follow the student to whatever school they choose – just like it does with the regular school voucher program.

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