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Voucher Funding Mostly Insufficient for Special Needs Students, Report Finds

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By Christina Samuels. This story originally appeared on the On Special Education blog.

Some parents of students with disabilities see a clear benefit to voucher programs to escape public schools that are a poor fit, even though the vouchers rarely pay the full cost of private school tuition and, in some cases, accepting one means giving up rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. 

The Council for Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a group that supports the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities, surveyed the landscape of voucher and other school choice programs in a June 8 report called School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities: Impact in the Name of Choice. (COPAA has organized a panel on the report for Congressional staffers that I am moderating.) 

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice says that 11 states have voucher programs that are explicitly for students with disabilities, or that include students with disabilities among other targeted student groups (for example, students in schools deemed to be failing, or from low-income families). They are: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah and Wisconsin.

COPAA found that its membership was split on the value of vouchers or similiar school choice programs. Some members saw choice programs as a way to provide appropriate services for children while avoiding legal battles.

For example, an unnamed COPAA member was quoted in the report as saying: "I would rather my child, and the children of my clients, have the opportunity to attend the small private school which uses evidenced‐based practices in a small classroom setting to educate different learners. The bloated, bureaucratic public school needs a huge overhaul, and my child does not have time to wait."

But other COPAA members noted that there's little research to support that children with disabilities who use vouchers end up performing better than those who remain in traditional schools. 

"There is little accountability and these schools are free to teach whatever education they please while taxpayers pick up the tab," the report quotes another member as saying.

The overview also noted that in some states, to use the vouchers means waiving federal special education law protections. For example, families that use the McKay Scholarship in Florida waive their right to due process under the federal special education law, COPAA found. Children in Louisiana who participate in that state's voucher program retain their rights. And some states, such as Arkansas, have laws that are silent on the matter. 

COPAA's conclusion, from its report:

...[W]e 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: all civil rights need to be upheld in the state‐approved construct; increased access to quality education is necessary; the options must be affordable to all; the options must be accessible to all; and, private schools of choice must be held to the same accountability requirements to which public schools are held. 

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