*story courtesy of Empower Mississippi*
The clock is ticking, and with each passing day, the Ferretti family of Cleveland gets closer to the Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA) for their son slipping through their fingers.
Blake and Leah Ferretti have three children with dyslexia, with their oldest son Thomas holding an ESA. The couple began to realize something was wrong when they made the decision at the teacher’s recommendation for Thomas to repeat kindergarten.
“At the time I wasn’t trained to identify dyslexia or any other learning disability,” said Leah, a teacher herself.
Thomas was diagnosed with a list of disorders including a learning disability, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and anxiety.
“He received an IEP (Individual Education Plan), and we were told that the district did not offer dyslexia therapy,” Leah noted.
It was then that Blake and Leah made the decision that Leah would go back to school and get a Master of Education degree in dyslexia therapy.
“At this point the school was using the term ‘Phonological Processing Disorder’ because they didn’t want to use the term ‘dyslexia.’ If they said ‘dyslexia’ then they would have to provide services to my child, and they did not want to do that.”
The Ferrettis hired an attorney and fought the district to have the dyslexia ruling placed on their son’s IEP.
“It put a target on our backs but it was not right for them to deny our son services,” Leah added.
The family had moved to Cleveland because they identified the schools as the best in the area, but once enrolled they realized that for children with dyslexia it was a service desert.
“Our son was waiting to fail in the situation at the public school,” Leah said.
In desperation, the couple moved Thomas to Bayou Academy in Cleveland because, as Leah explained, he needed something different.
“He was in a stressful environment and wasn’t getting what he needed,” she continued.
As Leah was researching options for her son, she came across the Special Needs ESA.
“I didn’t even know that it existed,” she said.
The Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA) enables parents to direct their state education tax dollars to the educational setting and services of their choice. The ESA can be used for tuition, therapy, textbooks, tutoring, transportation, and other qualified expenses, and it is valued at $6,594 this school year.
The law requires the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) to notify all families of children with an IEP about the existence of the program annually.
The program requires a line-item appropriation from the Legislature each year. Last year, with the program at full capacity, 435 ESAs were available. However, because the program continues to be level-funded by the Legislature, a slight increase in the value of the ESA accounts translates into a decrease in the number of ESAs available: 428 this school year. Currently, any available ESAs are awarded by lottery, and the number of families on the wait list this summer was over 200. The Legislature originally authorized 500 new seats each year, but the program has never even reached the number authorized for year one.
The Ferrettis applied for the ESA and Thomas did not receive it initially, however last year his name was drawn.
“I kept calling and bothering MDE,” Leah said, “and asking if we had received an ESA. On that call when I found out we had gotten one, I was so excited.”
Tears streamed down Leah’s face when she informed her husband that Thomas had received an ESA. The couple was paying for private school, therapies, and Leah’s master’s degree – choices they had not intended to make but ones that were necessary for Thomas’ educational success.
“They were all sacrifices we made to give our son the best education, but it was expensive,” Leah said. “Not only that, but we pay a significant amount of taxes and were not able to send our son to the school supported by our taxes, so we were paying double when we added private school tuition. These were all expenses we hadn’t planned on having.”
As Thomas has moved through school he is happy and successful.
“He’s doing well,” Leah said.
Two years ago, the couple’s middle son Henry began displaying dyslexia indicators. This time, thanks to education and much research, Leah was easily able to identify the indicators and began therapy at home.
The couple applied for an ESA for Henry.
“You package up all the materials that are needed for the application and send it off while sending up a lot of Hail Marys and prayers,” Leah said.
Henry has now been through three rounds of the lottery and his name has not yet been chosen. The law states that a child must have an IEP within the last five years to be eligible for an ESA, and with that deadline facing the Ferrettis, time is not on Henry’s side.
“With every round of the lottery that passes we know that we are getting closer to that alarm going off, and then what?” Leah said. “I am not going to move my child back to the public school where he will fail just to renew an IEP so we can sit on a wait list.”
“The public schools here are struggling to provide general education to children, and they are not able to provide all special education services at this point,” said Blake.
Leah described every “No” to the ESA as “gut-wrenching”.
“We have to keep moving forward,” she said. “It was God’s plan to lead us on this journey, and we will do what we have to in order to give our kids the best life we can.”
While the Ferrettis’ determination is clear, their frustration with those against school choice is great.
“Blake ran for office because of families like ours,” said Leah. “We are proactive people and believe in fighting for our children, and the very idea that opponents want to vilify families like ours for having to make a different choice for our children is outrageous. We only want to do what is best for our children, and I don’t understand how they can tell us that we don’t know what is best for our children.
“This is not an issue of public school and private school. It’s about our kids as individuals and what is the best individual education for a child. Why can’t we choose how to educate our children?”
Leah and Blake agree that their daily defeats when it comes to the ESA are what push them forward in their fight to educate their children.
“What are we supposed to do?” Leah said angrily.
As they wait, hoping and praying that Henry will receive an ESA, the couple’s daughter Blake has also been diagnosed with dyslexia.
“I’ve begun providing services to our daughter,” said Leah, “but I’m not going to put her in a public school just for the sake of getting an IEP. The Legislature needs to remove the IEP stipulation for the ESA application. I’m not going to split my kids up to send them to different schools. By requiring an IEP, they are eliminating some who should be able to access funds which is discriminatory.”
As the clock continues to tick, the Ferrettis are confident in the choices they have made for their children’s education. They are happy, enjoy school, and most importantly are confident.
“We want our kids to be good people. We want them to be happy and successful in life,” said Leah.“I have a friend who works as a drug court counselor and she told me the other day that we had made the best choice for our children. ‘Thomas was dying on the vine in public school,’ she told me. He was being defeated because he did not fit on the path of the public education mold. If we hadn’t done what was right by him, he could have been one of those children my friend sees every day in drug court.”
The Ferrettis represent every category for special needs families looking for options in the state: those benefitting from an ESA, those waiting for an ESA, and those ineligible for the program due to sacrifices made early on.
For now, they are faced with the painful passing of each day as they hope that Henry will receive an ESA before his IEP runs out.