According to the September 2015 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward the Public Schools, only 31% of Americans favor allowing vouchers to be used to pay for private and religious schools. Numerous other polls show higher ratios supporting use of vouchers, particularly for low-income students in failing schools, for whom many existing voucher programs were initially designed. Currently, 14 states have voucher programs, all of which are funded by the states. Only schools in the District of Columbia use federal funds for voucher programs. Regardless of whether you support or oppose the use of vouchers, with the advent of the educational policies of Betsy DeVos and a Trump administration, we are rapidly and inexorably slouching toward the use of public funds to pay for private and religious schools through the use of vouchers.
I do not wish to be an alarmist, but many special education attorneys, including myself, are deeply concerned about the impact of voucher programs for students with special needs; this voucherizing public education is a bad deal. Private schools can fully provide excellent and intensive educational opportunities for students with special needs. But there is a reason that it is excruciatingly difficult to get school districts to place appropriate students in these schools—they are extraordinarily expensive. Some top programs cost up to $60,000 per year. Yet, the median range of state voucher programs is from $5,000 to $7,000. In some states voucher amounts are based on specific disability (an issue with regards to the IDEA). For instance, students with autism in Ohio can receive vouchers worth up to $27,000. Clearly, vouchers can pay only a fraction of this tuition, rendering the ideal of school choice a myth for many families.
To see how a state operated voucher program works, we can look to Indiana. Indiana, which provides vouchers to 32,000 students, has one of the oldest state voucher programs in the country, and it began a mere 6 years ago in 2011. The rate of reimbursement for the voucher for low income students is calculated on 90% of what the state would have paid for a student in his or her particular district. Thus vouchers in Indiana range from $4,700 to $6,500. Students with special needs are allotted an additional $2,200, capping the voucher amount at $8,700 in Indiana. Thus, the families of students with special needs in most cases couldn’t possibly hope to pay for these aforementioned specialized programs.
So who uses these vouchers in Indiana? In 2011, the law stated that students who are to receive vouchers must have attended a public school the previous year. By 2013 under then Governor and now Vice President Elect Pence, this criterion was scrapped. As a result, the enrollment in private schools increased by 12,000 students, while the number of voucher recipients expanded to 29,000. Thus, by 2016, 52% of voucher recipients in Indiana had not attended a public school the previous year. As a result, Indiana’s voucher program is “helping thousands of families pay for a choice they are already making.”
The argument for vouchers is based on the concept that parents will opt for the highest performing school when they are allowed to choose, which will force failing schools to either improve or risk being closed. Private or religious schools, proponents argue, are allowed more flexibility in providing education for their students than their public school counterparts, thereby improving educational outcome. Everyone will win. There are some data that buttress this argument; other data don’t.
Now what about the effect of vouchers on students with special needs? Although some pro-choice advocates argue that children with special needs do better when parents are allowed to choose their schools, the Council of Parents, Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), a group of special educational professionals, states that “we still know far too little about the impact of voucher programs.” One thing we do know is that students who are placed by their public schools in non-public facilities to meet their educational needs maintain all of their rights under the IDEA. Conversely, parents who place their children in private or religious schools on their own forfeit these rights. The cardinal principle of the IDEA is to provide FAPE, or a free appropriate public education for all students. As delineated by so many stakeholders, including the NEA, the Council for Exceptional Children, and the National Center for Learning Disabilities,voucher programs undermine these basic tenets. The Nevada School Board's Association has complied extensive resources detailing how the use of vouchers undermines public education. Voucher programs are very likely to result in an education that is neither free nor public. Whether the education will be either appropriate or have a satisfactory outcome becomes problematic.
What parents absolutely must understand is that by accepting a voucher for their child and sending him or her to a private school, in many states the family may be waiving the child’s right to FAPE and all of the due process protections provided to the child by the IDEA. For instance, families in Florida who accept vouchers from the John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program must waive all outstanding complaints against their school districts. Private schools are making great efforts to insulate themselves from IDEA and all of its demands that protect children. They can cherry pick students to exclude certain disabilities or those whose educational needs they are ill-equipped to meet. I have represented students whose private schools removed them because of their disability. Private and religious schools receive little if any regulation to ascertain the quality of education being provided. Private schools have no legal obligation to:
- Maintain a child in the least restrictive environment
- Provide equal access to education
- Guarantee FAPE in many states or even provide an IEP
- Provide highly qualified certified teachers (some private schools have no special special education teachers at all)
- Demonstrate accountability through district and state assessments
- Ensure that students with special needs meet the same academic standards as their non-disabled peers
The Council of Parents, Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) provided a thoughtful report entitled “School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities: Examining Impact in the Name of Choice,” published in June 2016. COPAA members were surveyed on the following question: Would you participate or recommend your clients participate in a voucher program? Of the membership, 36% said yes, 21% said no, and 43% answered maybe.
According to the COPAA authors, “. . . we do not purport to say that vouchers in their totality are good or bad, helpful or not for students with disabilities. What we do know, emphatically, is that in the state-approved construct:
- all civil rights need to be upheld
- increased access to quality education must be provided
- the options must be affordable and accessible to all
- private schools of choice must be held to the same accountability requirements to which public schools are held.”
Ultimately, COPAA states: “Given the dearth of knowledge about best practices, protecting procedural safeguards and civil rights of children and the cost, both direct and indirect on children and families, it is too soon for the federal government to unilaterally make federal funds available for voucher programs.”Unfortunately, the cow may be out of the barn when it comes to vouchers. Like the proliferation of charter schools, which I recently blogged about, we are probably headed toward some sort of federal funding of voucher programs.
Certainly many parents are desperate to remove their children from schools that are failing miserably to meet their child's needs. It’s understandable that parents need to feel a greater sense of control of their child’s education. But please be cautious; let’s not jump out of the frying pan into the fire. Using a voucher for your child to attend a private school may well be appropriate for him or her. But please first review the thoughtful COPAA report carefully; familiarize yourself with what voucher programs, and their requirements, are available in your state. Meanwhile, as it feels I have been saying all too frequently, those of us who advocate for children with special needs or who have loved ones with disabilities need to monitor closely any proposed changes in federal and state laws regarding both vouchers and charter schools that will affect our loved ones. We need to be vigilant, we need to be informed, and we need to hold our legislators accountable to ensure the rights of our loved ones. And we need to have someone running the Department of Education who has qualifications beyond giving 10s of millions of dollars to Republican candidates. Advocate to your congressperson on this vital issue.