Lawmakers at the Capitol are hoping to Sine Die a full two weeks early and this week the House and Senate debate arguably some of the most important legislation of the session–appropriation bills.
All eyes are on the legislators as a line-item in the education appropriations bill could bring hope and help to hundreds of families with children with special needs. If the Education Scholarship Account program gets the additional $3 million that is being requested, it would eliminate the wait list for the program and would be what many parents consider the first real action that has been taken this session to meet the real needs of their children.
Parents like Anthony and Jennifer Byrd of Seminary, whose daughter, Leah, has to be shuffled hundreds of miles each week in order to get the education that is best for her, feel like their daughter’s needs aren’t seen as important by lawmakers.
They are currently on the waitlist of the ESA program, and they are frustrated with how the system works.
“It is not right that Leah’s education is based on a gamble,” said Jennifer. “It would mean the world to us for Leah to be chosen for an ESA.”
The Berry family has a son, Nathan, who has dyslexia. They’re also on the waitlist for the ESA. While the law allows for 500 seats to be added to the ESA each year, it has not happened. Proof, Jodi Berry said, that children with special needs are getting the short end of the stick when it comes to being a priority.
Other families haven’t started the process of trying to get on the waitlist, as their faith in the system is dwindling.
That’s why, for Danielle Kirk, the application still sits on her desk.
“It is extremely disappointing to understand how little special needs kids are valued by our state leaders,” she said.
“I was going to apply but now that it’s essentially dead I’m not applying,” said Kirk. One of her twin daughters is autistic. Kirk says that she would have used the ESA to get her daughter into New Summit, which has a program for children with autism called The Spectrum Academy.
“My main issue with public school is I have to train the teachers on autism and all that it entails,” said Kirk. “I so wish it was the other way around and that they’d already know what to do and teach me a few things.”
Real change and real chances of the ESA waitlist being ended this year lies on lawmakers, and as conference weekend approaches, the legislators will have the full attention of parents of children with special needs around the state.
However, it is possible that no changes will be made at all, for a couple of reasons: the desire to end the session early, and the fact that it is controversial and this is an election year.
One could judge by the previous conversations in the Senate that any discussion of the ESA program could be tabled until the next legislative session–just months before the program is set to expire.
When the motion to extend the repealer of the program to 2024 was brought to the Senate floor, the bill passed. But, Senator Derrick Simmons offered to recommit the bill, ending the discussion for this year, and postponing the conversation until next year, as the program wouldn’t be set to expire until then. That motion failed.
The bill was then killed in the House Education Committee and never reached the House floor for debate. The final chance for any change this year lies in the one line of the education appropriations bill that would allocate an additional $3 million to the program, effectively ending the waitlist–but still leaving the future of the program up for discussion NEXT year.
In the meantime, parents would be waiting with baited breathe for the next year. Legislators could then take up the bill regarding the ESA program early in the session and push it through, potentially expanding the program, or at the least, extending the repealer.