Students With Disabilities Combine School Vouchers For High Returns

May 15, 2018

Eight-year-old Chandler White is a bright-eyed, happy third grader, alternating Tae Kwon Do and spelling homework in his dining room with his mom.

He says he "really, really likes" his new school, The Piedmont School, a private school in High Point.

But, he used to hate going to school. It's the kind of thing a lot of kids say from time to time, but Chandler was really struggling, said his mom, Kara White.

"He went through kindergarten, first, second grade just going through the motions, but not learning how to read," White said.

Chandler is her only child. White prides herself in being his advocate.

"You feel so bad as a mother that you're not giving your child what they need. And then well-meaning people were coming in and, 'Well, didn't you teach him the alphabet? Well don't you read to him at night?'" White said.

White was doing all that, and more. She had many meetings with his teachers and school administrators. She read books, too.

"I picked up a book on dyslexia and when I started reading it, it was page-by-page my life, and I knew that that's what we were dealing with," White said. "Chandler came out, and it was a hot day and he said, 'Oh momma, the humanity is just so high. It's just so hot out here.' And I had just read that, ... a kid was talking about the humidity and said the humanity."

Language Arts teacher Patricia Palmer, left, and Kara White have a quick meeting as Chandler White waits to leave school at the end of the day.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

It was true. Chandler is highly dyslexic. Administrators at his school put him on an individualized education program, or IEP. He was given a counselor and was pulled out of class four times a day for special instruction. But, he got so frustrated in his regular classes, he started acting out.

White still has a drawer full of broken pencils in her house as evidence.  

"He would break his pencils in two, and he would come home and say, 'Did you see how many pencils I broke today, Mom?' And, 'Yeah, yes, I did. Tell me about it.'"

It got worse.

"It got to the point where he would rather die than go to school, and he would tell you that," White said.

Chandler did tell his teachers that, and every time he did, the public school protocol was to send him home. He started using it as an out.

"He was that miserable, and so obviously, that's when everything has to change," White said.

White started looking for other options. Her mom convinced her to look into private schools for kids with learning disabilities. That's when she heard of The Piedmont School. The private school specializes in teaching bright kids with learning and attention difficulties like ADHD and dyslexia.

"And when I looked at the tuition, I just knew it wasn't at all something that we could take advantage of," White said. "It was for other people that had the money to do that."

The Piedmont School instructor Susanne Barber listens as Tate Aycock reads during class.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Tuition at the Piedmont School is $18,000 a year. White had been working full time in the business office of High Point's waste management services, but she went to part-time to be more available for Chandler's many school meetings. His grandparents offered to help pay, but it was going to be tough. Then, White discovered the Opportunity Scholarship and the Disabilities Grant.

"The Opportunity Scholarship is an income-based program, for families to apply for financial aid for their students to attend a private school," explained Kathryn Marker, of the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority. The authority administers North Carolina's financial aid programs for college students as well as the state's three K-12 grants, generally known as vouchers.

"We also have the Disabilities Grants program, which is not income-based," Marker said. "Students who have a public school IEP, they can also apply to have funds to assist them to go to a private school."

The Opportunity Scholarship is worth up to $4,200 a year, and the Disabilities Grant is worth $8,000 a year. White applied for both.

"So, we were picked," White said. "I remember when it came in, that I actually just sighed. And all this stress came off of me, and I thought, 'I can breathe.'"

The day Chandler started at The Piedmont School, White said she did something for herself — she separated from his father. A few months later, her employer laid off all its part time workers. Now she really needed help to keep him at The Piedmont School, where he started to excel.

This is the third in a three-part series on school vouchers:

Part One: North Carolina’s School Voucher System Continues to Grow: How Did We Get Here?

Part Two: Motives For Seeking Vouchers Range From School Safety To Faith

Chandler White, 8, who struggles with dyslexia, attends The Piedmont School, a non-profit school specializing in teaching students with learning disabilities. Kara White, Chandler's mother, received two North Carolina’s vouchers, one for low-income families and one for students with disabilities, hopes to apply for the new Education Saving Account to keep her son in the school.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

More Good News

On Mondays, Chandler's homework consists of what he calls word pyramids. It's a special method that helps kids with dyslexia learn to spell. His teacher Patricia Palmer has a few tricks like that up her sleeve.

"Take the word sum," Palmer says, as Chandler sounds out the word. Chandler practices the word with hand motions, tapping out the letters on his arm, to help ingrain the spelling.

Palmer taught special education in pull-out classes in public schools for 23 years. Now she teaches language arts and social studies at The Piedmont School, where she can teach in classes of fewer than 10 students.

"It's just been nice with Chandler to see the positive change. He's changed a whole lot," Palmer said. "I think his mom would attest to that."

"He's a whole different child now," says White. "We're just so happy."

The Piedmont School is a non-profit specializing in teaching students with learning disabilities. Instructor, Susanne Barber, center, works with Lucy Turner, Victoria Darden and Tate Aycock, left to right, listens as Tate Aycock during their word study class.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Now, Kara and Chandler are hoping for more good news. This spring, the state opened up its third voucher program, another for kids with disabilities. It's called an Education Savings Account. It's not exactly a savings account in the traditional sense — Kara jokes she couldn't afford to use that. Parents don't put money in, the state does. It is a $9,000 grant delivered on a debit card. Parents can spend it on private school or special services.

If Chandler wins a lottery to receive the grant, he'll be getting more than $21,000 to attend his private school. More than 1,400 students like Chandler applied for just 300 of the new vouchers. If he is granted one, the extra $3,000 they'd have left after paying tuition, his mom wants to use for speech therapy.

Sounds great for Chandler, but the program is also drawing criticism, especially from public school advocates.

Help for a Select Few

"Look, I'm a parent. We all want what's best for our kid, and I think the choice is compelling for that reason," said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. "But we want to make sure the parents have all the information."

Private schools do not have to follow the same federal rules for serving kids with disabilities, the way public schools do, according to Poston. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensures certain standards, and if a public school does not meet the needs of a student with disabilities, he or she can seek legal recourse. The act does not apply to private schools.

"Without transparency and accountability, the parents don't really have a lot of great information to go on," Poston said.

Chandler White works on spelling words. White, 8, struggles with dyslexia, is attending The Piedmont School, a non-profit specializing in teaching students with learning disabilities.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Very few schools can do for kids what The Piedmont School can do, but parents can take their child's voucher money to any private school — even if that school is not remotely equipped to serve students with disabilities. Only a minority of private schools that have received the disabilities-based voucher have a specific focus on serving students with disabilities; most are primarily religious schools.

And, at the same time that the state is putting away money for individual kids who want vouchers, public school advocates say money for public school students with disabilities has been capped.

"That special needs, exceptional children services, is underfunded now," Poston said. "I mean there is actually an artificial cap that the state of North Carolina has on funding for special needs kids."

That cap is set at 12.75 percent of students per school district. To clarify, let's say 12.75 percent of students in a school district have special needs. The state provides additional special education funding for each of those students, at roughly $4,200 per student. But, if that school district has one more student with a disability, that child gets no extra funding for his school.

That is happening at some North Carolina schools now. Meanwhile, if Chandler wins a lottery and gets both disability vouchers, the state will pay his private school $17,000 to serve his learning disability. That's about four times what he got for his same needs at his public school.