Published Online: March 27, 2007
Published in Print: March 28, 2007, as Vouchers Eyed for Students With Disabilities

Vouchers Eyed for Students With Disabilities

As more states weigh limited choice option, critics see political ploy.

More than half a dozen states are considering legislation to offer private school vouchers for students with disabilities.

They are looking to join the ranks of four others—Arizona, Florida, Ohio, and Utah—that already offer that school choice option.

Supporters say that such vouchers are an important safety valve for parents when public schools don’t offer programs to meet those students’ specialized needs.

But opponents warn that parents who take advantage of those vouchers may be giving up procedural protections guaranteed to their children under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

They also argue that vouchers for students with disabilities lay the groundwork for universal voucher programs that would drain money from public education—and point to Utah’s experience as an example.

In that state, the 2-year-old Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship entitles students with disabilities to receive up to $6,042 a year for private school tuition. Utah’s governor on Feb. 12 signed into law a measure making vouchers available to all students in the state, though the program is expected to face legal challenges. ("Utah’s Broad Voucher Program Could Face Challenge," Feb. 21, 2007.)

“The Utah program is enormously significant,” said Marc Egan, the director of federal affairs for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va. “It unmasked the whole push for vouchers. The end goal has always been full-scale private school vouchers for all kids.”

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that advocates charter schools and other forms of school choice, rejects that claim. The supporters of vouchers are just as diverse in their goals as the supporters of traditional education, she maintained.

“I don’t think that most people see this as a camel’s nose into the tent,” Ms. Allen said.

Varied Proposals

Legislation to offer vouchers for students with disabilities is currently on the table in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.

School Choice Programs for Students With Disabilities

Voucher programs for students with disabilities are under consideration in Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. Four states currently have such programs.

Arizona Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities:
The program awards about $3,000 each for students to attend the public or private schools of their choice. The program, which started in 2006, is capped at $2.5 million.

Florida McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities:
This program, which began in 2000, allows students to receive a voucher equal to the cost the public school would have spent on the child; the average voucher is around $6,900.

Ohio Autism Scholarship Program:
Begun in 2004, this program offers vouchers of up to $20,000 each in tuition assistance to students who have autism or an autism spectrum disorder.

Utah Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship Program:
The program, launched in 2005, awards tuition assistance for private school based on the state’s education funding formula. Currently, the vouchers can be as much as $5,700 per student.

Most of those proposals are in their earliest stages, as in Nevada, where bills are pending before committees in both chambers of the legislature.

“It’s another opportunity for parents to take control of their child’s education,” said Assemblywoman Valerie E. Weber, the Republican who introduced the measure.

Some states are further along in the process. In Georgia, the Special Needs Scholarship Act passed the Senate in January and is under consideration by the House. Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, one of the sponsors, predicts a close vote for the program, which would offer students a scholarship equal to the cost of the educational program the student would have received in public school.

“There’s all these problems, all these myths about vouchers,” said Mr. Johnson, a Republican. But he said that lawmakers seem to recognize that students with disabilities “may seriously have unique needs that the regular schools can’t meet.”

Florida set the precedent for such vouchers with the Florida McKay Scholarship. The 7-year-old program provided an average scholarship amount in 2005-06 of $7,000 that parents of students with disabilities could use to pay tuition at a private school of their choice. About 17,300 students participated in the program during that academic year.

“It’s definitely a growing movement. Florida paved the way for us to look at choice in a variety of different ways,” said the Center for Education Reform’s Ms. Allen. These programs “have become more popular and increasingly accepted by more diverse constituencies,” she said.

Matt Warner, the education task force director for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based association for conservative state lawmakers, said his group provides model legislation on special-needs vouchers.

“As states have experience with these voucher programs, they’ll see that they’re not a bogeyman at all,” Mr. Warner said. “In fact, these are the great equalizers.”

Mr. Egan, however, views such programs as a way of smoothing the path for the acceptance of universal vouchers, which his group, the NSBA, opposes.

“To us, it’s more of a political strategy on the part of the voucher supporters to go for these more targeted programs,” he said.

Safeguards at Risk

Martin Gould, a senior research specialist at the National Council on Disability, in Washington, points out that those who use vouchers to attend private schools may be giving up IDEA protections. The council is an independent federal agency that makes recommendations to the president and Congress on issues affecting Americans with disabilities.

The IDEA requires all public school systems to provide a free, appropriate public education for students with disabilities. Parents who believe their children are not getting an appropriate education have the right to a due-process hearing, and can carry a complaint against the school all the way to federal court.

Children with disabilities who are enrolled by their parents in private school are still entitled to certain protections, such as those outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, they generally do not receive the more specific protections for students that are outlined under the IDEA.

“Regardless of whether parents are frustrated, this is a pretty clean break with all of their rights,” Mr. Gould said. When parents accept a voucher, he said, “it’s a leap of faith to move to private schools that possibly may not be justified.”

And even in states that offer such voucher programs, public schools may offer attractive options for parents of children with disabilities. Ohio’s 2-year-old scholarship program for students with autism provides up to $20,000 for educational expenses, but Jennifer Brown, an outreach coordinator based at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center, often tells parents to start with their local school district.

Although Ohio has 148 providers authorized to instruct children with autism, they may not be conveniently located for families, she said.

Also, many school districts “do have some really good people involved in those programs,” said Ms. Brown, who also serves on the board of the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati.

“Most often, my advice is that their local school district is their best resource,” she said. “Public schools have been doing this for a long time.”

PHOTO: Jacob Dimick, 9, who has autism, plays the zither last year at the private ACE Academy, in Wickliffe, Ohio. A state program offers tuition vouchers for families of such children.
—File photo by Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 29, Pages 15,18

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