All Mississippi students, including those with disabilities, should be provided a free and appropriate education to ensure that they have every opportunity to lead successful, independent lives. Recently, the education of children with special needs has received a good bit of well-deserved attention. Unfortunately, in most cases, only partial information, some of which has been misleading, has been reported.
The Full Story on Mississippi’s Low Graduation Rate Among Students with Disabilities
Much has been made of Mississippi’s low graduation rate among students with special needs. The following are some important considerations relating to this issue.
Ed.gov, the U.S. Department of Education site that reports state graduation rates overall and among sub-groups, cautions that significant variations among states in standards, assessments, and graduation requirements make state-to-state comparisons of graduation rates problematic. The site cautions readers that, “Due to the potential differences, caution should be used when comparing graduation rates across states.”
What are the differences that make these comparisons inaccurate?
- Only students who graduate with a regular diploma are counted in the graduation rate being used for state-to-state comparisons.
- Many states allow an alternate path to a regular diploma for students with disabilities, with a different set of course requirements for graduation; Mississippi does not.
- Mississippi’s alternate path leads to a certificate of attendance or alternate diploma, neither of which is counted in the graduation rate.
- Mississippi has more rigorous graduation requirements for a regular diploma for students with disabilities than do most other states, including passage of four standardized subject area tests – the same ones taken by students without disabilities.
- Mississippi is one of only eight states that requires students with disabilities to pass four subject area exit exams in order to graduate with a regular diploma.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities has among its research findings:
- States with a policy to offer multiple diplomas can result in fewer students with Specific Learning Disabilities graduating
- Variation across states in the ways that students with disabilities can exit school appears to have a significant impact on the graduation rate of these students.
- This low rate of high school graduation with a regular diploma has a serious impact on the employment rate and earnings of students with Specific Learning Disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for those with less than a high school diploma is over 12 percent—almost double that of all workers. The median weekly earnings is $471—a bit more than half that of all workers.
- The Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) is a significant new source of information on the graduation rate of students with disabilities. However, each state is allowed to define the students with disabilities (SWD) subgroup for the ACGR. For example, some states may define the SWD subgroup as:
- Only students who entered high school as a SWD and also exited as a SWD;
- Only students who were SWDs at graduation;
- Anyone who was ever a SWD between entering high school and graduation;
- Or some other method.
- This variation in definitions adds to the unreliability of making comparisons across states.
Recommendation from National Center for Learning Disabilities:
- States with multiple diploma options and low graduation rates for students with disabilities and/or significant graduation rate gaps for students with disabilities should closely examine the impact of multiple diploma options, graduation requirements and exit exam policies.
Politicians Pushing Privatization Kill Good Bills to Advance Vouchers
Legislators have had numerous opportunities to provide real help for children with special needs, but instead, chose to focus on legislation that provides our most vulnerable children no assurance of special services at all. Rather, the voucher bill, backed by privatization groups and advancing in the Mississippi Legislature, provides $6,500 vouchers to parents who promise to withdraw their students from public schools and who sign a document absolving the state of Mississippi of all obligation to provide a free and appropriate education for their children. Voucher schools are not required to provide any special education services at all to children with disabilities.
Here is a recap of what legislators could have done in this legislative session, but did not do, for children with special needs:
- The House passed an amendment to HB 385 that would have removed the requirement that children with disabilities pass the state exit exams in order to graduate with a regular diploma. This bill was allowed to die in the Senate.
- HB 649 would have created the Office of Education Special Needs Counsel to provide guidance and advocacy to parents of children with disabilities in securing special education services. The bill died in the House without ever being debated.
- HB 656 would have provided a statewide director of autism at the Mississippi Department of Education. This position has been requested repeatedly by the legislatively-created Mississippi Autism Advisory Panel. The bill was never taken up for discussion and died on the calendar.
- HB 814, the Special Education Improvement Act of 2015, would have created a separate line item to fund special education to shine light on the amount of funding appropriated by the Legislature for special education in public schools and to require that those funds be spent only for special education services. The bill also would have created a Coordinator of Autism Spectrum Disorder Services, the position requested repeatedly by the Mississippi Autism Advisory Panel, and created a fund to provide assistance to families of children with special needs to purchase additional therapy, tutoring, equipment, and other services for children with an Individualized Education Plan or a diagnosis of dyslexia. It died in the House and was never debated.
Legislators Routinely Under-fund Special Education Programs in Public Schools
Each year since Fiscal Year 2010, legislators have voted to under-fund special education programs in public schools. Yet many of the same legislators who vote against adequate funding for children with special needs in public schools are pushing tuition vouchers for children with special needs to attend private schools that have no accountability for the quality of education they provide, that are allowed to pick and choose the students they wish to educate, and that are not required to provide students with special needs any special education services if they are admitted. The pro-voucher legislators’ reasoning? They say the public schools they refuse to fund adequately aren’t providing enough accommodations.