A Parent's Perspective on School Vouchers for Students with Disabilities

This following is the full text of Anna Caudill's address
to the Center for American Progress on March 22, 2017. 


Thank you. My thanks to the Center for American Progress for the honor of sharing our story today. Thanks to Kami and Danny for all your help. I’d also like to thank COPAA, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. COPAA’s encouragement and support have empowered me to advocate for my children’s education. I’m also grateful today to have a special friend with us. Sarah Miller was FuXia’s first tutor in China, and I’m so glad she’s here.

(I live with my husband Shane and our two sons, FuXia and YoYo, in Franklin, TN, just south of Nashville. Both our sons were displaced at birth by disability and came to our family by adoption.)

Let me tell you about my son, mighty FuXia. I came all this way to brag on him. He loves Computer Aided Drafting, and he listens to Pink Floyd when he solders circuit boards. The 11th Doctor is his favorite. His best friend is Rocco, a 14-year-old horse he rides for dressage at Saddle Up. Fu was born with arthrogryposis, a severe joint disorder. In China, he lived in a rural orphanage and then a medical foster home. When Fu joined our family in 2010, he was 9. I’ll never forget Fu’s reaction to American public school. He gushed about the restroom big enough for him to use without help, the bus with an elevator just for his chair. He said proudly, “In America, I can go anywhere, I can do anything!” We’d been told Fu would need a wheelchair for mobility for life—but by 2014, he could use crutches at school, and he walked independently at home!

It took me longer to realize FuXia was struggling to learn. He has a reading disability and language impairment. It took us years to find answers, because our school kept saying nothing was amiss. For five long years, Fu fell further behind his peers while his school district insisted he just needed more time to learn English. At first, this seemed reasonable. But by 8th grade, when he was in the 3rd percentile for reading and the 1st percentile in writing, they still insisted, “He’s just Chinese, he sounds Chinese.” When I voiced concern about his safety as a new walker, they hung a whistle around his neck in case he fell in the bathroom and carried him over the shoulder to outdoor science lab because he walked too slowly. I tried engaging our middle school in the process provided by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, the IDEA. We eventually filed a due process complaint to trigger IDEA protections of Fu’s civil rights. When it was dismissed, we appealed to Federal District Court, where our complaint sits.

After we appealed, the Tennessee Department of Education sent me a flyer about a new program, the IEA. The Individualized Education Account is Tennessee’s version of a voucher program for students with select disabilities who receive special education through an IEP. It gives parents school choice—you can trade your child’s federally protected civil rights under the IDEA for a one-time monetary amount to pay for private school tuition. The average IEA award is $6,300, and 9 Tennessee private schools are approved for IEA use. To keep your child in private school, you must re-apply annually, with no guarantees. If you re-enroll your child in public school, his IEP is gone. He must start the evaluation process from scratch.

“Orthopedic Impairment” is listed on Fu’s IEP as his primary area of disability—it’s one of six IEA-eligible disabilities. With this in mind, I looked into the approved private schools. There are 3 in the Nashville area. One is a parochial K-8 school, but Fu is currently a 9th grader. The second is located on the second floor of a shared office building, but the building isn’t ADA compliant, and there’s no elevator. Fu can’t climb 2 flights yet. At the third school, tuition is $50 an hour. Given Tennessee’s minimum weekly instruction time, the IEA would provide Fu 6 weeks’ tuition.

I shared my concerns with Senator Alexander’s HELP staffers a few weeks ago. They said vouchers are just one more option for parents, and parents of students with disabilities may find vouchers don’t work for them. But in Tennessee, IEA funds are ONLY for students with disabilities. Private schools aren’t obligated to comply with the ADA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, so parents who trade IDEA rights give up their children’s protections under those laws as well.

Undaunted by the IEA’s failure to garner interest—only 48 students are using it this year—the Tennessee Legislature is working to expand IEA eligibility and to authorize “The Empowerment Scholarship Account Act,” a separate bill to make vouchers available to ALL Tennessee students. If passed, this voucher program is expected to pull $71 million a year from Tennessee public schools. It also comes with another layer of discrimination. Unlike the IEA’s average $6,300 award, the Empowerment Scholarship would allow parents $7,000 annually toward their children’s education. Parents of students with disabilities may apply for both but will only receive one, though there’s no express indication in the Empowerment Scholarship bill of what would happen to a student’s IDEA rights. The K-12 difference between funds offered to parents under these 2 programs is nearly $10,000 per student.

Fu’s experience in public school has altered the course of our family’s life. I homeschool him now, I take him to language therapy, cognitive therapy, physical therapy, and equine therapy. I drag him to Washington on his Spring Break for Government class. I haven’t cloned myself yet, so our family survives on my husband’s teaching salary. We sit just above eligibility for entitlement programs. I joined the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, learning what I can to advocate for other children with disabilities. Through my participation in COPAA I have spoken to other parents in states like Florida, Illinois, and South Carolina, and I’m learning that my family is not alone in this struggle. I even started a nonprofit to advocate for the unique learning needs of children adopted internationally. Meanwhile, we’ve used crowd-funding to provide for Fu’s education, therapies and tutoring.

I believe in public schools. I believe that general and special education teachers, with support from their districts and states, are the best equipped professionals to address the unique learning needs of students with disabilities. I strongly believe that public schools are communities in microcosm that my child must be able to participate in, if he is going to function productively in his community as an adult. If we shuffle children with disabilities off to private schools or homeschools or whatever “place” is easier, then we are preparing them for lives of dependency. My mighty FuXia has so much more to offer than that.

Anna Caudill