Teacher's Desk: Florida's Example

State Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, is sponsoring SB-130, a pilot program for three charter schools serving autistic students. I remember talking years ago with Sen. Spence about her scholarship bill for poor students -- Colorado's voucher experiment -- being struck down in the courts. She asked me to check out what Florida was doing for special education students. I did and discovered the McKay Scholarship Program. Much as I like this year's SB-130, the McKay Scholarships are far better. The McKay Scholarship allows any student with an Individual Education Plan (IEP), Kindergarten through 12th grade, the opportunity to attend the school that the parent and student feel is the best fit. This includes, district public schools, charter schools, and private schools. The state of Florida will pay the choice school the amount of state funds used to educate that student, or private tuition, whichever is less. This can be as little as $5,500 per school year to $22,000 per year depending on the severity of the disability.

Senator Spence was originally supporting parents of autistic children with a similar version to the Ohio Scholarship Program. The Ohio Scholarship Program is a choice program for autistic students only and allows school choice for students with autism in a district or out-of-district school, or in a private school. The student must have an IEP with the autism disability designation. Unless transportation is noted in the IEP, the parents are responsible for transportation costs. The state will fund the student up to $20,000 per year depending on the student’s needs. Autism is a spectrum disorder which means there are many different levels of abilities and needs and all are under the autism umbrella.

I truly like the McKay plan best because it supports all disabling conditions. Many of our transient special education students are falling through the cracks. It is not uncommon to see sixteen and seventeen-year-olds reading at the first, second, and third grade levels. Those of us working with a quality reading program like Wilson or Language can move students two to four years in reading levels for one school year’s instruction if the student attends regularly and is motivated. Attending the school of your or your parents’ choice denotes buy-in; motivation and attendance is more likely to occur.

I like the McKay Scholarship over a pilot charter because it would impact students with disabilities immediately. Although I support the charter pilot program, it will take two or more years to develop a charter, pass a school district’s board of education’s specifications, find quality, supportive charter school board members, and market to the autistic community. Then, a principal familiar with charters, autism, leadership, and new school openings must be selected, as well as, the selection of curriculum, personnel, location …and much, much more. It would be so much easier to pay students’ tuitions for existing programs!

I don’t believe the general public realizes how many students need some form of special education and never receive it. We have an abundance of students with attention problems, behavior problems, various degrees of emotional and mental illness, and plain old dyslexia. Most schools’ special education (IEP) population is 10% of the total student population. My experience in district and charter schools leads me to believe that for every child we have in our schools on an IEP, there are two more that should also be receiving services. Most of these students are bright, capable people that need some additional strategies or services to become confident and successful.

Moving to “opportunity” scholarships for students of need will lighten the load for general educators who may be unprepared for the litany of interventions and strategies needed for some of these kiddos. In Denver, we have two private schools especially designed for students with learning disabilities that are leaders in the field. Unfortunately, only the elite have access.

A Colorado form of the McKay Scholarship Program is needed. Let’s call it the Spence Scholarship Program.

Kathleen Kullback is a licensed special educator at Colorado High School Charter with an M. A. in Educational Leadership from UCD. She is a former candidate for the State Board of Education.