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More Vouchers, But at What Price?

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This year, vouchers that would pay for at least part of the tuition at private schools seem to have surged in popularity. And in particular, lawmakers across the country are touting private school vouchers for scholarships for students with disabilities.

The American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice tells me that in all, 15 states have passed or proposed laws that expand or create vouchers for students with special needs.

Why? "Hundreds of new legislators who believe in school choice were elected at the state level in 2010, and these legislators are committed to providing children from low-income families and students with special needs with opportunities to go to the schools of their parents' choice," says Andrew Campanella, a spokesman for the organizations.

(Hundreds of new Republican legislators, I would add.)

Florida passed an expansion of its 12-year-old McKay Scholarship program, adding children with allergies and asthma to the students who qualify. (This still needs the OK of Gov. Rick Scott.) In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer already signed into law a measure that creates "empowerment scholarships" for students with disabilities. Utah passed a law that boosts spending for the Carson Smith Special Need Scholarship program so more students can participate.

In addition this year, 12 states—Connecticut, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, the federation says—are proposing legislation to create new school vouchers, opportunity scholarships, or scholarship tax credit programs for children with special needs. At the federal level, there has been talk of providing special needs scholarships for children in military families.

"Children with disabilities must receive an education that meets their individual needs," said Betsy DeVos, chairman of the American Federation for Children. "Tens of thousands of children across the country will have the opportunity to thrive in the schools of their parents' choice if these programs are passed and enacted."

But parents of children with disabilities need to be sure of what they're getting into when they trade public school for private school, even if it's with the help of the government, said Lindsay Jones, senior director of policy and advocacy services for the Council for Exceptional Children.

In private school, children with disabilities lose all their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That means giving up the right to participate in meetings about a child's education, the ability to have hearings about the way a school is or isn't meeting a child's needs, and so on. "Do they really understand this?" she said.

In addition, she said, it's rare that a voucher would pay the entire cost of tuition, and some private schools cannot, or will not, accept students with severe disabilities. And they can't be forced to. Is that too high a price to pay for going to a private school?

The federation might counter that an audit a few years ago by Utah showed that 100 percent of parents using that state's vouchers were satisfied with the program.

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