On Jan. 15 the Associated Press ran a story by Kimberlee Kruesi, “AP Exclusive: State voucher violations leave details unknown,” detailing alleged abuses of Tennessee’s Individualized Education Account Program—a voucher-like, parent-choice initiative serving the educational needs of students with disabilities. The parents of school-age children with a qualifying disability who opt into the IEA Program receive approximately $6,500 a year to go toward qualifying academic expenses—the amount of money the state would have spent on that student in their public school district.
Kruesi’s reporting is based on letters obtained from the state to parents addressing misuse of funds, presumably obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Nowhere does she actually interview the parent of a child enrolled in the IEA Program.
Acceptance into the IEA Program entails a lengthy and heavily documented application process. Participation in the program requires parents to sign away their child’s rights to a “free and appropriate public education” under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parents then become responsible and accountable for the education of their special needs child, and must do so for a fraction of what their public school system would have spent on their child—the $6,500 is state funds only; federal and local funds stay with the school district.
In other words, parents who participate in the IEA Program have had such adverse experiences in their local schools that they choose to walk away from the public system and take responsibility to educate their own children for a fraction of what that education may actually cost. Families who participate in the IEA Program frequently have children with the most severe forms of disability, who are the most difficult and costliest to education, so taking on this responsibility is no easy task. In the 2018-2019 academic year, the program’s fourth year in existence, only 137 children were enrolled statewide.
To read Kruesi’s AP report, however, one is lead to believe that the IEA Program is rife with parents scheming for ill-gotten gain. Kreusi describes parents receiving debit cards “loaded with tax dollars” and that “the AP found that Tennessee flagged nearly $30,000 in misspent voucher funds during the 2018-2019 school year.” Kreusi goes on to acknowledge that, “A portion of that amount was overturned through the appeals process,” though apparently the dollar amount of portion doesn’t merit specifying.
I want to respond to Kruesi’s article from two perspectives: as a parent of a child enrolled in the IEA Program and as one of two parents serving on the IEA Program’s External Advisory Group. (Though, to be clear, I am not writing this at the request of anyone in the Tennessee Department of Education and I am not authorized to speak on behalf of the Department or the IEA Program.)
The most recent data available from the IEA Program runs through the first quarter of the 2018-2019 academic year. This data squares completely with the information presented to the Advisory Group on May 22, 2019. Meetings are open to the public.
Of the 137 children enrolled in IEA for the 2018-2019 academic year, eight voluntarily withdrew and nine were removed for failure to submit expense reports (submitted quarterly) or for misuse of funds. The removal of nine students for noncompliance suggests program oversight not only existed but was working well at the time—facts not present in Kruesi’s AP exclusive.
Across the 2017-2018 academic year—the most recent full year’s data publicly available—a total of $310,556.39 was spent by participating families. Of this amount, $303,118.77 (98 percent) was spent on approved expenses, while only $7,437.62 or 2.5 percent was spent on disallowed expenses. One might argue that any government program with a 2-percent rate of misspent funds is a massive success. Further, of those misspent funds, $2,229.81 had been recovered by the Department of Education when the report was issued in September 2018. Per IEA policy, the remaining $5,207.81 would have been forwarded for collection unless successfully appealed.
By the first quarter of the 2018-2019 academic year (the last quarter for which we have the data, as I’ll explain below), misspent funds had ticked down to 2.2 percent, which is likely over-reported as parents would not have completed appeals at that time. In the previous academic year, 2016-2017, misspent funds totaled 9.8 percent ($5,927.01 of $60,449.48, of which $4,495.81 was repaid by the time the year-end report was issued).
So what we have is a complicated new program that parents of severely disabled children are learning to navigate while simultaneously planning for the education of those children. As parents learned the program better, and as IEA policy on allowable expenditures and those requiring pre-approval was qualified, misspending plummeted in two years from 9.8 percent to 2.5 percent to 2.2 percent in the first quarter of 2018-2019.
So misspending was slashed by 300 percent while the number of students enrolled grew nearly four-fold from 36 in 2016-2017 to 137 the following year. So much for Kruesi’s scary byline that, “Some Tennessee parents were accused of misspending thousands of dollars in school voucher funds while using state-issued debit cards over the past school year.”
Misspending did occur, but it was extremely rare and effectively addressed by program administrators at the time. Almost all parents understand that misspending means removal from the program and could threaten the existence of the program itself, and so are careful to steward funds ethically and with appropriate documentation.
In fact, though unreported by Kruesi, the single biggest expenditure (38 percent of the total) was on tuition for private schools approved by the state to receive IEA funds. A small amount went to post-secondary tuition and fees, and the rest went to expenses associated with educational therapies and educating children at home.
And one more thing: All of this data is publicly available on the IEA website—no investigative reporting required. It’s not clear if these numbers didn’t fit the Associated Press’s agenda, or if their investigative reporters just haven’t discovered the power of Google.
The Kruesi article does claim that the letters suggest a total of around $30,000 in misspent funds in the 2018-2019 academic year. It’s impossible to know until the state publishes an updated program report, but if misspending did tick up, it’s probably not because of parental malfeasance.
Let me explain. When it launched in 2015, the IEA Program was staffed by three hard working and highly competent Department of Education employees. I know this because I worked closely with them as a member of the Advisory Group. The loss of a program assistant soon followed due to retirement and that position was not reallocated by the department. The program director resigned for personal reasons in mid-2019, leaving only one experienced employee overseeing the program. When the department failed to re-hire and the work burden became too great, this person resigned in the Fall of 2019, leaving a single, newly hired administrative assistant with little program experience in the office. Seemingly frustrated by not being able to help families or exercise appropriate oversight, this individual resigned in January 2020, leaving the office unstaffed. The Department of Education’s plans for managing the program—which they are obligated to do under state statute—has not been communicated to families in any way.
These failures to rehire positions have occurred despite the fact that IEA Program personnel are funded by withholding the costs of administrating the program from student dispersements. In other words, the IEA Program is budget-neutral by statute, and the money is sitting there to hire people to properly oversee the program. In the meantime, dispersements to many families have been months in areas, causing serious financial distress for some.
So if misspending did in fact increase in the second through fourth quarters of 2018-2019, it isn’t because of widespread parent misconduct, but because there was literally no one to pick up the phone and answer questions about how funds may be spent. The story here that’s worthy of journalistic investigation isn’t a story about the greedy parents of disabled children stealing from state coffers, but about why the Tennessee Department of Education hasn’t properly staffed a funded program that it is legally obliged to implement and oversee.
In the case of my own family, my wife gave up her job (and much-needed income) to take our son with severe autism out of a public school system where, for three-and-a-half years, he had made practically no progress on the goals specified in his IEP (that is, the “Individualized Education Program” the school is legally obligated to implement), where he was increasingly cut off from the general education curriculum in favor of a so-called “life skills” track, and where he had been forcibly restrained by a teacher for the grave offense of kicking mulch on the playground (not at anyone, but just to get attention, since he didn’t understand how to play independently at that time and this was his attempt to get attention from the teacher). He was five years old, 40 pounds, and non-verbal at the time, and the teacher was visibly horrified when she realized my wife was watching from the school parking lot. He was never a danger to himself or others (which would have been officially documented where this the case), so we were left wondering what was going on when we weren’t around. Perhaps his treatment in the public system, which up to that point had been exemplary, accounts for some of the unexplained anxiety he began experiencing around that time. Since he was nonverbal at the time and only minimally verbal now, we’ll never know.
In short, the public system failed our little boy, and at great personal expense we reordered our lives to educate him at home. Since that time he has almost caught up to grade level in reading ability, he is making gains in math, and he is learning to speak. And he is safe and loved.
And while it would have been easy to wash our hands of the public school system, we opted for a different approach: organizing local nonprofits who serve individuals with disabilities in our community, teachers and related professionals, and likeminded parents to engage the school district in pursuit of system-level change. We now have new district leadership and school board support for the implementation of a three-year plan to transform our school system from one of the worst-performers in Tennessee when it comes to the segregation and academic outcomes of students with disabilities, into a system grounded in academic and social inclusion and evidence-based best practices designed to serve our neediest children. Exciting changes are taking place in our local schools, and we’re honored to be a small part of it.
We’re not asking for a medal for what we’ve done for our son; this is just what parents do. What we would respectfully ask is not to be vilified in news coverage distributed on a national scale.
One final thing, and it’s a big one. The AP article claims that, “Tennessee’s program will be expanded to thousands more students in Nashville and Memphis beginning in the 2020-21 school year.” Kreusi is apparently confusing the IEA Program with the state’s new Education Saving Accounts Program, which is unrelated. The ESA Program offers a voucher to the most impoverished students in the state’s two largest urban centers—in other words, predominantly African American students in historically failing schools. While the ESA Program may be controversial and may or may not be sound public policy, giving educational options to poor, predominantly black families doesn’t sound like a Trumpian conspiracy to defund the public system, and it has nothing to do with the IEA Program.
So what has happened here is that a program designed to help Tennessee’s children with special needs is being caught up in the national debate over school vouchers. As with many public policies, the research on the effects of vouchers on the public school system is all over the map—you can see what you want to see.
The IEA Program just doesn’t have anything to do with the voucher debate. The reason is shockingly simple, even if invisible to the Associated Press and others with pre-formed opinions: Families participating in IEA only receive state money that would have been allocated on a per-pupil basis to local districts—federal funds and local tax dollars that make up the bulk of public education spending are unaffected. So while families receive $6,500 or so a year from the state, we’re leaving behind tens of thousands of dollars more that will now be distributed among fewer children.
We’re not criminals and we’re not defunding public schools. But as parents of children with special needs we are tired and stressed. So if the Associated Press and others would leave our families out of a voucher debate that has spun out of control and that we’re not a part of, and if the Tennessee Department of Education would step up and fulfill its statutory duty to administer the IEA Program, our families would be grateful. We just want to care for our children.