For many parents with special-needs kids, boarding schools for ADHD, dyslexia, Aspergers and other conditions are often the best choice when it comes to helping their children manage their symptoms. Whether they choose one of the top boarding schools in America or a program closer to home, these institutions can help students learn the skills they will need to thrive as adults. Recently, legislation was passed by the state House and Senate in Mississippi that seemed to be in accordance with this goal. However, as the bill waits to be signed by Governor Phil Bryant, parents and advocates across the state are claiming that the program violates the separation of church and state and fails to meet the needs of students.
Called Senate Bill 2695, or the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, this legislation would allow parents with disabled children to place their students in religious or secular academic programs with the help of government vouchers. The bill would provide 500 vouchers worth about $6,000 per student for five years. Similar laws are currently being considered in Wisconsin and Tennessee, and Florida and Arizona have already approved voucher programs. However, numerous complaints have already been made about the bill, ranging from accusations of unconstitutionality to questions about the program’s extent.
Critics of the program include the National Education Association and state Representatvie Jeramey Anderson, who both claim the bill is unconstitutional, although for different reasons. The National Education Association, for example, calls voucher programs a common method of circumventing the separation between church and state, especially in schools. Meanwhile, Anderson has stated that the program is allowing private schools to access funds meant for public institutions. However, constitutional experts seem to believe that there is a federal precedent that nullifies these complaints: a 2002 Supreme Court case called “Zelman v. Simmons-Harris” ruled in favor of an Ohio scholarship program which provided vouchers to religious schools 5-4. As a result, many believe that the policy could survive even if it is challenged and sent to the state Supreme Court.
However, many parents are arguing that the program doesn’t meet the needs of all of the state’s special needs students, a claim that may hold more weight. The policy may let 500 students attend some of the top boarding schools in America, but there are more than 66,000 students identified with disabilities in the state. Even worse, the graduation rate for this group is estimated at about 23%, compared with almost 75% for students without special needs.
The bill’s authors admit that the program does not help all special needs students in the state, but say that the policy is meant to support families, not specific schools. Governor Bryant is expected to sign the bill in the coming weeks. Will the program allow Mississippi’s special needs students to attend the top boarding schools in America, ranging from the best schools for dyslexia to programs for Aspergers? Only time will tell