Vouchers for students with disabilities aren’t always what they seem

Parents should think twice before supporting them

Harvard Education
Apr 21, 2017 · 5 min read

By Laura Schifter

To the parents of the nearly 6.5 million children with disabilities in the United States:

The new administration has made their education agenda clear — expanding school choice. In this effort, it seems evident that the administration plans support vouchers for certain students, including students with disabilities. Secretary DeVos indicated as much in a letter clarifying her questionable understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), stating she intends to find ways “to increase access by students with disabilities to a broader range of educational options.” In fact, Republicans in the Senate and the House of Representatives have already introduced legislation this Congress to allow special education funding to be used for vouchers. To move a voucher proposal successfully, the administration will try to win your support.

Don’t be persuaded into supporting voucher proposals under the guise of increasing educational options for your children. In the end, you may lose protections, money, and your right to participate as an advocate looking out for your child’s best interests.

In recent years, voucher advocates have seen targeted programs for students with disabilities as a palatable mechanism to push their agenda forward preying on the real struggles of parents. In fact, in 2015, over half of the established voucher programs specifically targeted students with disabilities in determining eligibility. Despite a lack of familiarity with IDEA itself, DeVos highlighted and praised these programs as success stories. Yet, to take advantage of these programs, parents of students with disabilities have had to sacrifice their entitlements and protections under the law.

Policymakers in opposition to these proposals have cited certain programs that force parents to sign away their rights. Even if programs do not force you to waive your rights, you still might lose them. To understand what you may lose, it is important to understand what you are entitled to under IDEA.

Under IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to a “free appropriate public education” at no cost to the parents. The important thing to note is the entitlement is to a “public” education, rather than simply a “free appropriate education.” Once you make the decision to accept a voucher to be used at a private school, your child’s education is removed from the protections of IDEA, which may only apply when your child is in public school.

Accordingly, if you accept a voucher to enroll your child in private school, you will lose essential protections. IDEA entitles you to procedural safeguards under the law including the right to due process and disciplinary protections. For instance, if your child is repeatedly suspended in school, IDEA requires educators to meet with parents to determine if the suspensions are directly related to the disability or a failure of the school to implement your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). If, as a team, you find the suspensions are related to the disability or failure to comply with the IEP, the suspensions would be revoked and teachers must implement a behavior intervention plan to support your child. In a private school, however, your child can be repeatedly disciplined without any guarantee of interventions to address behavior.

You may lose money. The median voucher amount across current state plans is around $5,000 to $7,000. This amount may not be sufficient to cover the full cost of private school tuition. As parents, you may be responsible for making up the difference. It is also important to note that some schools charge fees in addition to tuition, which may include fees related to the cost of planning for students with disabilities. Again, protections under IDEA may better serve you as it relates to cost. Parents are entitled to be involved in determining any placement decision for their child. If the IEP team determines the best placement to be a private school, the school district will cover the full cost, rather than partial cost, for your child to attend that private school.

You may lose your right to participate. Under IDEA, parents are full participants in determining the IEP for their children. The school cannot change student services or placement without parental consent. Parents are entitled to call an IEP meeting to discuss their child’s progress, and they are entitled to review all educational records for their children.

When you opt into a voucher program, this level of involvement is no longer guaranteed. Private schools are not obligated to include parents to this degree in decision-making; they are not obligated to provide specific services; and they may decide without parental consent to alter an educational plan or in a worst-case scenario decide to no longer educate your child because he or she is too costly or challenging to serve.

It is true parents of students with disabilities face real challenges with public schools. Advocating for services and placement, navigating the process, and ensuring educators are meeting your child’s needs is difficult. But rather than abandoning the system and sacrificing your rights, I encourage you to consider what can be improved within public schools to make your child’s experience better.

For instance, what if teacher preparation programs ensured all teachers, including general education teachers, were better prepared to meet the needs of students with disabilities? What if teachers were better supported in using evidence-based practices to develop literacy among students with disabilities? What if more schools optimized their use of technology to better increase access for students? Yet, in order to cover the cost of their choice initiatives and reduce federal support for education, this Administration has proposed eliminating funding for teacher preparation, teacher professional development, and literacy development.

As Secretary DeVos herself noted, “IDEA is a wonderful example of what happens when parents are regarded as full partners in their child’s educational decision-making.” Parents, fight to maintain this partnership and fight for policies that will make your child’s experience better while maintaining your protections.

As proposals come forward promising more choice, you need to ask yourself if you’re forced to give up so much, is this choice really an option at all?

Harvard Education

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News and views from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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