Sunday, May 19, 2024
Sunday, May 19, 2024

A Word Of Caution for GATOR Scholarships and Students with Exceptionalities

Dear Editor:

This legislative session has had a robust discussion of the implementation of Educational Spending Accounts or ESAs. Along with 14 other states, Louisiana is on its way to passing HB745, the GATOR Scholarship Act. If you know anything about ESAs, their intention is to put the parents in the driver’s seat for their children’s education. In essence, to give parent’s choice. Heavily supported by most legislators, our current Governor Jeff Landry, BESE or Board of Education and Secondary Education, and LDOE or Louisiana Department of Education, this bill will give parents who have children that are currently attending public schools, a scholarship of anywhere between $5,000 to $15,000 to use towards providing an “alternate” method of education – mostly used for private school education.

After extensively researching Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Program, a very similar ESA approach, it is noted that their program is Universal after originally being introduced in 2013. As of 2022, after a decade of development, their program expanded to include all K-12th grade students to become eligible to receive an ESA account. The difference with our GATOR Scholarship will be that there will be only two pilot years for underserved students, such as impoverished or those with exceptionalities, to apply for the scholarship. On the third year, the program plans to become Universal, which can be surmised that even wealthy parents who have students that are already in the parochial schools will receive a stipend that will offer them a significant discount to their already afforded private school tuition.

So where does this leave parents of students with exceptionalities? And what can we do to protect our children’s IDEA rights and FAPE or Free and Appropriate Public Education? The answer wasn’t clear when the legislators were questioned this session on students with disabilities’ rights. Most of the commentary received in favor of the bill, HB745, state that “it’s a great program, changing lives, giving parents control,” without any true figures to hold together their proposed accolades.

After researching, I have pulled together these important items to reflect on if you are deciding to go the GATOR Scholarship Route:

  • First, understand the amount of your scholarship for your student. If the $15,000 scholarship does not match up with what your student is receiving currently at their public school under their current IEP or Individualized Education Plan, then truly consider if that $15,000 is enough to make the switch to private school education.
  • Second, understand that your IDEA rights and FAPE rights are waived by private schools: offering no IEP services from the public school district, presenting no transportation to and from school, and if you happen to disagree with their methods of education or if the student is not progressing, offering no government mandated mediation process to seek relief.
  • Third, another important fact to consider is that private schools have additional costs besides tuition, such as uniforms, extracurricular activities, supply costs, transportation costs, sports participation costs, and various pop-up costs throughout their attendance during the year, often amounting to a thousand dollars or more.

Last, I want to make sure that I make this entirely clear: If you do run out of ESA dollars, after spending money on tuition, uniforms, parent-provided supports and accommodations (therapies, a paraprofessional, a special educator, tutoring, communication devices, etc.), YOU, the parent, are entirely responsible to come up with the money owed. Also, if the school you choose to send your exceptional child to, cannot handle your child’s needs during the year and you decide to transfer to another school: your ESA dollars will not be refunded by the private school, meaning that you will have to pay or return to a public-school setting to receive the supports and services through your IEP.

Samantha Singletary, RN-BSN – Sunset, LA
Parent Advocate, Proud cCMV Mom
2023 Graduate of LADDC Partner’s in Policymaking
Current Louisiana LSU-HSC LEND Scholar
Regional Advisory Committee, Region IV
LADDC Council Member serving as a Parent Advocate
St. Landry Parish Superintendent’s Council
Board of Directors St. Landry Abilities

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