Mississippi’s special needs bill to return next year

Part 89 of 89 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

In Mississippi, 23 percent of special needs students graduate high school.

Appalled by the numbers, state Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, introduced a bill to enact Individualized Education Funds, allowing parents to enroll children in a private school, hire tutors and therapists and otherwise tailor students’ education to their individual needs.

The bill failed.

“With our graduation rate of 23 percent of students with an IEP graduating, that’s unacceptable to me as a parent, and one would hope that it was unacceptable to the state of Mississippi,” Crawford said. “It wasn’t as important to the other legislators as I thought.”

SPECIAL NEEDS: Rep. Carolyn Crawford said she plans to introduce special needs legislation again next year.

Katie McCustion, a Tupelo, Miss., mother of a boy with dyslexia, fought with her school district over her son’s education.

“As a parent, I don’t care if they call it a coupon program,” she said. “I don’t know why they’re stuck on the word ‘voucher.’ Whatever you want to call it – you can call it a travesty bill if you want to.”

McCustion said she wants her son, Ian, in the Tupelo Public School District, if it could serve him. She wants to enroll him in a private school that serves dyslexic students but would transfer him back if the public school program improves.

“We shouldn’t have to wait for you to rectify this. You should say, ‘Please come back when we have our act together.’ Would I do it? Sure. I’d be the first to advocate for them. But they can’t do it now,” she said.

Two weeks after Ian began kindergarten, his teacher could tell something was wrong. It turned out to be dyslexia, a disability afflicting roughly 20 percent of Americans.

Diagnosing Ian was a struggle, McCustion said. The school’s dyslexia coordinator resisted testing him several times, and when she finally did she told McCustion that Ian’s age – then 5 – could skew the test results.

Five-year-olds can be screened for dyslexia, McCustion learned later.

“I feel like I’ve done the research of someone who has a four-year degree,” she said. “They say the mom does better research than the FBI; that probably goes for education, too.”

IAN: Ian McCustion, 7, has dyslexia. His mother doesn’t believe his school is helping.

Ian finally received an Individualized Education Plan, which outlined the accommodations the school would provide — but they were not implemented, his mother said.

As part of the IEP, Ian was supposed to take tests privately, in a separate room because the presence of other students distracted him. One Friday afternoon, his mother came to take him to a therapy appointment and found him taking a math test in the corner of the classroom with the teacher. The other students laughed and talked with a guest speaker.

“His classmates were so loud. I said, ‘Why is this happening? According to the IEP he has, this isn’t supposed to happen. Why is he being penalized for learning differently?’” McCustion said.

This scenario is typical, she said, and it’s taken an emotional toll.

“He’s aware of where he is in school, and he told me in January of this year — he had a breakdown over reading a book, and he told me he was the slowest reader in his class,” McCustion said. “It’s frustrating. My son gets migraines because of this. He has stomach aches. He was throwing up last year. A kindergartener throwing up out of anxiety for going to school is wrong.”

McCustion and dozens of other parents rallied in Jackson, sharing their stories with lawmakers and hoping they would pass the IEF bill.

The program was modeled on Arizona’s education savings accounts. Mississippi’s program initially would have been open to 500 families and would allot $6,000 each — much less than it costs the public school system to educate them.

Opponents argued that the state should increase funding for special education services in public schools.

Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents Campaign, a public-school advocacy group, said she was concerned private schools could take advantage of parents and would not be accountable to the public.

“These bills were very poorly written and they put these children at much greater risk,” Loome said. “We are very concerned about the potential to cause great harm to the children with special needs and take advantage of them with these bills. We think this can be handled in a way that doesn’t deny services to children, put children at risk, for parents to promise to take their children out of schools that are providing services.”

The bill failed in a second House vote.

“There was a consensus that something needed to be done, and this was the only bill that would have addressed that problem this year,” said Grant Callen, president of Empower Mississippi, a state-based policy organization promoting educational choice.

Some representatives who ultimately voted against the bill probably hoped it would be revised into something they could support in the final vote, Callen said. He said he was not aware of other legislative ideas to help kids with special needs.

“The groups that opposed this oppose any measure that would give parents options, and their solution to any educational problem is just more money,” he said. “Money has not solved our educational problems in decades and I have no confidence that it would solve our problems in the future.”

McCustion said she was eventually told that, because of money, Ian couldn’t be served.

“They told me that, as a district … because of budget, we can’t meet his needs so he can be on par (with other students), but we’ll get him as close as possible and we’ll do as much as we can,” she said. “I love this school. I’m not anti-district, but if I can’t meet the needs of my child, I need more options as a parent.”

The coordinator didn’t seem interested in solving the problem, she said.

“I asked the dyslexic coordinator at IEP meetings: ‘How about this? How about you email your severe dyslexic parents, and let’s come out with a time together and talk with our legislators about what we need to meet the needs of these kids. I said that four times and was met with silence.”

Crawford said she is “absolutely” planning to push the bill again next year.

“I’m going to sponsor this bill until I get it passed,” she said. “We have some districts that follow state and federal guidelines and some great teachers in some districts, but we have some districts where they’re not able to do that, and it’s very difficult for our parents to get the services they need in those districts. They need some other options, and I’m trying to make sure I can give those parents other options.

“We’ve already got federal and state guidelines and laws, and some of the districts just choose to ignore them,” she said.

Callen said he expects the momentum to continue.

“The fight for this bill helped demonstrate the need for this, as parents of children with special needs came out of the woodwork from across the state. They went to the capital, called legislators, emailed, asking for a program like this that would give them a choice — and it failed, but there’s great energy in that special needs community,” he said. “They are energized to come back again next year and try to get it across the finish line.”

Before the vote, McCustion said the program would reflect well on Mississippi’s education system.

“I was told by all the people who could implement (IEP) for Ian, (that) they can’t meet his needs in the district. That’s a big thing. If there’s one thing I know if (the bill) passes, I can get his needs met. It’s not about where his butt’s sitting,” she said.

“He’s going to be in this city, a citizen of this state, that’s what it’s about. What did you produce when he puts down his transcript? Is he a citizen that’s going to bring economy here? What if he was the next Steve Jobs? What if he came back and said (the school was) wonderful to me in my 12 years? Or is he going to say, ‘They sucked, and I heard my mom and crying and everything’? That’s a big deal!”

The Tupelo Public School District did not return calls for comment.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.