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Vouchers For Military Families: Needed or Not?

It's been a quiet week at On Special Education! Sorry about that, my blogging side had to take a temporary back seat to my reporter side: after writing an article on guidance from the Department of Education on bullying, I started right away on an article about a proposal tucked away in the defense reauthorization bill that would start a $5 million voucher pilot program for military families who have children with disabilities.

This is one of those stories where far more was left in my notebook than I had space to explore in the article. The parents who I interviewed and who emailed me were generous with their time, and told me very discouraging stories. Of course, the parents who have had no problems are not the ones who usually talk to reporters. But I heard from enough folks to understand that there are some unique challenges to frequently moving from school district to school district when you have a child with a disability.

Just when you manage to hack through the red tape at one school district, it's time to pack up and head to another, these families say. If a school district decides that it won't provide services like another district did, mediation or due process can take so long that the problems are not resolved before service members are ready to move to a new town. And of course, as we go enter the 10th year of military conflict, some of these educational issues must be handled by just one spouse as the other is getting ready to deploy to a war zone.

Dee Dee Eberle, the director for chapter organizing and advocacy for The Arc of the United States, said her organization is trying to get its chapters located near military installations to be a resource for parents. One of the first steps the organization is taking is to survey military families on their needs, so I would recommend taking the Family and Individual Needs for Disability Supports survey. The Arc plans to work with the military family support organizations to help both active-duty military and family members in the National Guard and Reserves.

None of the military families I spoke with suggested that a $7,500 voucher would solve their specific problems--they told me they need a continuum of services. But they all thought that a voucher might be a good option for at least some parents. In that way, their thinking is very similar to other parents who have supported special education vouchers in the states: such vouchers currently exist in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah.

But it's also fair to note that $7,500 in voucher money won't go very far, and that parents who take that money are walking away from the protections offered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as imperfect as they may be. Enrolling a child in a private school may be the right decision for a family, but it can't be made lightly.

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