DeVos must come clean on school choice for students with disabilities

DeVos must come clean on school choice for students with disabilities

For students with disabilities, the idea that they and their parents can choose the school that fits any individualized need sounds phenomenal and for some families, that ideal can be a reality. The juggernaut, however, is that for students whose learning, behavioral, health or emotional needs are challenging to support, very little “choice” actually exists. During National School Choice Week, it is critical to know that choice for some does not mean equity for all.  

Last November, the National Council on Disability (NCD) published the School Choice Series (Vouchers and Charter Schools); both were officially submitted to the White House.  To date, Secretary DeVos has failed to mention any of the documented findings, especially those critical to explaining the extreme variance and lack of availability of the same type; or in some cases, any choice for students with disabilities as compared to other school-age students.

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For example, the NCD voucher report found that the same concerns presented in 2003 (by NCD in a prior report) continue to be critical problems in 2018. Specifically, the report highlights:

NCD found that while some families experience that private schools are able to meet the needs of children with disabilities better than public schools, parents and families using vouchers can lose access to IDEA rights; accountability can suffer; and vouchers might only cover a portion of private school cost, leaving a majority of families unable to access any choice at all.

These NCD findings are consistent with other reports for example in 2016: Private School Choice Programs Are Growing and Can Complicate Providing Certain Federally Funded Services to Eligible Students, and School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities: Examining Impact in the Name of Choice; in 2017, Private School Choice: Federal Actions Needed to Ensure Parents Are Notified About Changes in Rights for Students with Disabilities; and 2018 5 Policy Ideas to Improve Private School Voucher Programs.

When student civil rights are systematically denied under voucher programs for the students who Congress has determined need civil rights protection, why does the Secretary of Education continue to speak about these programs as if they are foolproof for every family?   

Especially egregious is the push by DeVos for unchecked federal funds to be appropriated for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Annual appropriation approval is intended to provide checks and balances; requiring answers to equity and educational outcomes realized by the program and its students.  

Some families may benefit from vouchers when the public school has failed their child. But let’s be clear, this option is generally only available to parents with the time and finances to facilitate the process and offset the cost of tuition and fees; who can afford to pay for private therapy or related services; or, who are lucky enough to live where a state offers funding to meet full tuition and expenses for students with higher needs.

Most importantly, state voucher programs, and the federally funded D.C. voucher program, cut the IDEA-eligible child off from IDEA rights and cause loss of services and supports. Many families face severe consequences such as: financial strain; push out by private or religious schools when children are deemed too challenging to educate; and, there is often no accountability for student outcomes equal to state accountability systems.

These drawbacks are profound, and the administration cannot continue to ignore facts.

It’s time that advocates driving efforts for increased access to vouchers also disclose the truth about their impact on access, equity, cost and accountability for students with disabilities.

Denise Marshall has been the executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) since 2005. She has 30 years of experience in the field of disabilities in a variety of support, management, and advocacy capacities.