The Trump administration is planning to allocate billions of public education dollars to expand private school voucher programs, but vouchers may not be the best option for families with special needs children.
Vouchers allow parents to use public funds to pay for tuition at a private school of their choice, including religiously affiliated schools. This may seem like a good solution for students with disabilities, especially those having trouble thriving in the public school setting, but parents who accept and use vouchers may be unwittingly giving up their child’s rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Act guarantees children with disabilities a “free and appropriate public education” that meets their specific needs “in the least restrictive environment.”
Private schools are not required to offer children using vouchers the same level of educational services they are eligible for in public school. There is also no guarantee that the teachers are certified, or even have experience, in special education. Parents who use vouchers also forfeit the right to a hearing to dispute disciplinary action against a child, and they may be charged additional fees beyond what the voucher pays for.
In many cases parents who accept these vouchers do not realize that they are giving up IDEA rights and services.
An April 11 New York Times article, “Special Ed Vouchers May Come with Hidden Costs,” explains the difficulties that some families who used vouchers have faced.
One parent in Port St. Lucie, Florida, whose son has a speech and language disability, obtained a scholarship from the John M. McKay voucher program, one of the largest disability scholarship programs in the country. The family used a voucher for a private school and then received a bill from the school for $2,400 in additional fees, which they weren’t expecting.
According to the Times, several states with private school choice programs – Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wisconsin – require parents to waive some of their IDEA rights. Several other states do not specify any disability rights for voucher students.
Another surprise for parents is that if their child does not progress or is cited for a disciplinary issue, the parents have little recourse against a private school.
The Times details the story of a parent whose autistic son was suspended from a religious school in Florida for inappropriate behavior. Under IDEA, the family could request a hearing if the child’s misbehavior was a function of his disability, but this is not a requirement in a private school setting.
“You don’t have much recourse,” said the boy’s mother. “I never in a million years thought that in this private educational setting that my child would not be protected by state and federal law.”
Private schools, unlike public schools, have little or no accountability when it comes to their handling of students with disabilities. A board member with the McKay program said private schools should provide necessary information to parents, but it is the parent’s responsibility to research the private school program and ask detailed questions.
To read the Times article, click here.