Parents, advocates back special ed bill at Capitol

Sen. Nancy Collins, left, R-Tupelo, and Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, discuss the need for passage of their proposed legislation, Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Students Act, at the Capitol in Jackson on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Sen. Nancy Collins, left, R-Tupelo, and Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, discuss the need for passage of their proposed legislation, Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Students Act, at the Capitol in Jackson on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Advocates for special-education children called on House and Senate members to pass legislation that could result in their children receiving $6,000 each year to pursue education options other than public schools.

Parents of two students in the Tupelo Public School District spoke at a news conference and later at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education committees in favor of the legislation Tuesday at the state Capitol.

Both Katie and John McCustion and Natalie Gunnells said their children’s needs were not being met by Tupelo’s public schools.

“All my husband and I want is the freedom to take the education money attached to our son and use it where his education needs can best be met,” said Katie McCustion, whose son is in the first grade in the district and has been diagnosed with moderate to severe dyslexia.

Gunnells testified that her son’s condition, cir du chat and autism, impacts his sensory and motor skills. Despite the fact the district has assigned a personal assistant for the student, she said her son has gone unattended and confined to an adult stroller for an entire day on at least one occasion.

Neither parent had decided what they would do with the $6,000 voucher if the bill becomes law. Some people at the news conference in support of the legislation believe they could receive the funds and keep their children in the public schools.

But that is not the way the legislation is written. Students would have to leave the public schools upon receiving the funds.

Under the legislation as it is currently written, more than 65,000 children across the state would qualify for the program, potentially costing the state more than $415 million annually.

But Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, said her intent is””to tighten up” the legislation as it moves through the process to make it a pilot project for 500 students.

“They (special-needs children) deserve an opportunity just like other children,” Collins said.

When asked about the bill and comments of the parents, Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said he could not comment on specific students, but said, “If parents have concerns about the services his or her child is receiving from our district, we welcome them to come to us to discuss and work through these concerns. At times, this process is complex and sometimes a compromise may be necessary.”

He said when a resolution cannot be reached, the Mississippi Department of Education will provide a mediator.

“In many of these situations, the district provides a medical assistant and specialized equipment for the student which costs thousands of dollars,” he said.

He said the legislation would not provide the funds it would cost to educate those children in a private setting.

The House and Senate both have passed bills providing the funds to special needs students, but many members have voiced concerns about the best way to deal with the issue.

Senate Democrats in a news conference earlier this week also said they have concerns with how some districts deal with special-needs students, but said the legislation proposed by Collins would take funds away from a public school system that already is significantly underfunded. Some have said new state Superintendent Carey Wright, who has a background in special education, should head a task force to present recommendations to the 2015 Legislature.

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Daily Journal reporter Chris Kieffer contributed to this story.