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Parents: Special Needs Students in Private School Denied Scholarships
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Some parents of special needs students in Mississippi are complaining that a program that awards scholarship money for education services is being withheld from private school students.

The Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act was designed to give the parents of about 430 special needs students in Mississippi, $6,500 in state money for approved services outside the public education system like private schools or tutors. 

When the law went into effect on July 1, Kevin Burnham tried to enroll his daughter, who has Down Syndrome, into the program. He says his daughter didn’t make it into the program because she went to private school.

“Two weeks after the application I got the letter from the Mississippi Department of Education notifying us that our child had been disqualified from consideration from the program,” Burnham says. “Specifically saying that she was disqualified because we did not provide an IEP. There is nothing that says the IEP has to come from a public agency.”

Under the law, students must have a current Individualized Education Plan -- or IEP -- to be eligible for the program. It's a legal document that summarizes a child’s unique learning issues and outlines specific educational goals for that child.

Gretchen Cagle oversees special education for the Mississippi Department of Education. She says the agency is following the letter of the law and using the federal definition of IEP.

“Under federal law, only a public agency is allowed to issue an IEP,” Cagle says. “Therefore, IEPs or documents similar to that are issued by a private school do not meet the definition of an IEP.”

Cagle says the only way students from private schools will be eligible for the scholarship will be if lawmakers amend the law when they meet again in January.