For years, Kelli Unnerstall wrestled with private and public schools to get her son with dyslexia the help he needed to succeed in school. Sharing her story with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, she explained that her son started struggling in kindergarten but is only now receiving remedial services in high school.
Now Unnerstall, cofounder of Decoding Dyslexia Missouri, is helping other families by working with the Missouri Legislature. This summer, Governor Jay Nixon signed a bill mandating that public schools screen students for dyslexia by the 2018–2019 school year. The legislative task force responsible for implementing this new law met for the first time earlier this month.
The goal is to develop a more detailed plan for screening students and training teachers to help students with dyslexia. Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, is now heading the dyslexia task force. During the first meeting, she pointed to tests used by other states like Mississippi that have helped detect dyslexia and get children closer to the help they need.
But what is the plan for students after they are diagnosed with dyslexia? Will extra training for teachers and some classroom accommodations be enough for these students who often fall behind?
To best help these students, Rep. Swan and the task force should consider taking another cue from Mississippi.
The Mississippi Dyslexia Therapy Scholarship is the only program in the nation that is tailored to help children with dyslexia by offering families a voucher for their children to attend private schools that offer dyslexia therapy programs. Mississippi also established an education savings account (ESA) program for children with special needs.
Along with Mississippi, Arizona and Florida have taken the additional step of creating ESAs for students with dyslexia and other disabilities. Ten other states have made significant progress by establishing school choice programs designed specifically for special-needs students.
Mandatory screenings to help identify children with dyslexia are a good start, but only a first step. Vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and ESAs are working for students in other states by giving their parents more control over their education and providing the financial means for additional therapy and tutoring. What is Missouri waiting for?