Tennessee Education Association

Great Public Schools for All Students


Legislators reject proposal to expand ineffective, unpopular special ed voucher program

A bill that would have massively expanded the special education voucher program was defeated in a house subcommittee. If passed, the program would have expanded fourfold what TEA and special education professionals across the state see as an attempt to undermine the gains of inclusion and would have posed a risk to students. 

“Stopping the bill at its first vote shows we’re winning the opinion battle in the voucher fights,” said TEA chief lobbyist Jim Wrye. “We can’t rest when it comes to privatization, but it is heartening to see we are beating it earlier and earlier.”

The Memphis-only voucher bill was pulled at the beginning of the session.       

The Individual Education Account program allows certain special needs students with IEPs to leave public schools, and the families receive BEP state funding of approximately $6,700. Parents are notified they waive all federal rights to special education services by taking the monies.

There is no accountability for the program. The department of education testified in subcommittee there is no way of knowing what, if any, academic or behavioral progress these children make using state taxpayer dollars. The program was designed to be, and will remain, a black hole for tracking children.      

Approximately 14,000 students qualify for the IEA voucher with diagnoses such as autism, intellectual disabilities, and deaf-blindness. Every family is informed of eligibility by the state annually, and the program is in its second year. 
Only 80 families are currently using the program. 

“It is clear the vision for this program by the privatization advocates was wrong, and that parents recognize the value of special education in our public schools,” Wrye said. “Proponents painted a bleak picture of trapped families, while we were concerned about our students. Sending a check with no academic accountability should give everyone pause. The good news is that almost all families understand the value and keep their students in public schools.”  

When the General Assembly passed this law, TEA convened a working group of concerned special education teachers and researchers to help develop rules for the program to highlight student safety, allowing parents to make informed decisions. Low participation levels are a testament to that work, and the quality of education for special needs students. 

“This program is the second front in the voucher fight,” said Wrye. “You can guarantee bills to expand this program will come in future years, including one I imagine for every student in the state. We will need to make sure we elect legislators who will stand up for public schools.”                 

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