Hope Deferred for Mississippi’s Overlooked Special-Needs Students
Mississippi’s Department of Education has made a habit of pouring taxpayer money into lawsuits against parents of special-needs students rather than funding improvements in the state’s subpar program as parents have requested.
“School districts often spend more money in lawsuits fighting parents of special-needs kids than they would spend to educate the kids if they just did what the parents wanted,” said Allison Hertog, an attorney for Making School Work.
Mississippi has a long history of failing many its special-needs students. Only 23 percent of students in its Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) program graduate high school, compared to the state Department of Education’s goal of 66 percent.
High Dropout Rates
Nearby Texas and Arkansas graduate students with learning disabilities at rates greater than 77 percent, higher than even Mississippi’s overall graduation rate.
Unsuccessful students have no substantive proof they are capable of pursuing a bachelor’s degree or career.
Between 2007 and 2012, 15,529 Mississippi special-needs students left school without a diploma, according to U.S. Office of Special Education Programs exit data. The price tag: $1.2 billion in special education costs for few success stories, considering 1-in-11 Mississippi public school students goes through the program.
Seventy percent of special-needs students have either a language impairment, specific learning disability, or other health impairment. These tend to be relatively minor impediments, but many of these students still will not receive a degree.
Taxpayer Money Goes to Fight Parents
The state’s education officials concede its school districts are not satisfying parents’ desires and a legal obligation to educate all students.
According to an in-depth report from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, “newly appointed state Superintendent Carey Wright and interim state Special Education Director Therrell Myers, say they're aware of the problem and have made its fix a priority.”
“The problem is that school districts almost always think they are meeting the needs of these children and are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees fighting parents,” said Jameson Taylor, vice president for policy at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.
One state representative was honest about the lack of forward movement in the Hospitality State.
"Special-education kids are more expensive, and to some districts they're just a bother. I hate to put it that way," former House Education Chairman Cecil Brown (D-Jackson) told the Clarion-Ledger. "It's not something administrators are well trained in."
It’s the parents who have resolved to be the catalysts for reform, only after wasting time and taxpayer money trying to rally district officials to improve in serving their kids’ needs.
‘Fighting the Family’
The Mississippi Department of Education oversees schools’ compliance with IDEA. Unless a complaint makes its way to their office, the department will not get involved with low graduation rates.
Of 31 complaints to the department in the 2011-2012 school year, not all resulted in thorough investigations.
One case stemmed from a complaint that claimed the Quitman Consolidated School District refused to educate two autistic twin boys.
When a parent files a request for a due process hearing or state complaint with the Mississippi Department of Education, the school district pays substantial attorney fees to fight the allegations.
“The school district spent roughly $1 million fighting the family,” explained Emily LeCoz, an investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger.
“The solution is to change the incentives. Give schools an incentive to work with parents, instead of against them. And give parents options when their school is not meeting their child's needs,” said Taylor.
School Choice a Potential Answer
Parents wanted Mississippi to be next in line, behind Arizona, to adopt an education savings account law that would grant special-needs students $6,000 per year toward customizing their education as a parent or guardian sees fit.
On March 12, the Mississippi Senate passed HB765, the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, but the bill failed in the House in April. Republicans voting against the bill were key to its defeat.
The legislation would have freed parents from having to rely on the state or the district their child is stuck in. “For a fraction of the cost, parents could be put in the driver's seat and given options for services outside the status quo,” added Taylor.
Mandy Rogers is a firm believer in the benefits of school choice for special-needs kids.
“Without having to navigate through an emotional rollercoaster that comes with a legal proceeding which involves special education issues, parents can focus on the educational needs of their child,” said Rogers, president of the Madison-based Parents United Together group for parents of special-needs kids.
“Usually the response we see is that change takes time,” said Rogers. “Our response is, ‘It has been 39 years—how much longer do Mississippi’s children have to wait?’”
Image by Offut Air Force Base.