States are not doing enough to inform parents about the special education rights they give up when they enroll their children in private schools with publicly funded vouchers.
That’s according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that also urges Congress to compel states to tell parents about the tradeoffs they make when they opt to participate in a private school choice program.
Expanding private school choice is a priority for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—a longtime philanthropic booster of school choice who drew condemnation from special education and civil rights advocates during her confirmation hearing when she appeared to be confused about basic principles of federal education law.
More than half of the state private school choice programs, which include tuition vouchers and education savings accounts, are specifically targeted to students with disabilities.
Even though vouchers are funded with public money, when a parent switches their child from public to private school, they waive crucial special education rights granted to them under federal law—such as “discipline procedures and least restrictive environment requirements,” said the GAO report. That’s something that parents of students with disabilities may not be aware of, said Selene Almazan, the legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, or COPPA.
Eighty three percent of students using special education vouchers are participating in programs that provide inaccurate or no information at all on the federal protections families are giving up, the GAO found as it reviewed websites for voucher programs and the private schools that participate in them.
The GAO analyzed 27 currently running voucher and education savings account programs and interviewed officials with the Education Department and the six largest private school choice programs, among others.
Only three of the 15 programs for students with disabilities offer advice on their websites about how families should go about choosing a school that meets their children’s needs.
The GAO estimated that only about half of the private schools that participate in special education voucher programs offered any disability-related information on their school websites. That percentage of schools remained about the same when the GAO looked at all types of voucher programs.
“I was surprised to read that,” said Almazan. COPPA helped connect the GAO with families and lawyers to interview. “I think it’s difficult for families who are ready to utilize private schools or choice options ... to make an informed choice if there’s no information available for them.”
The report, which was requested by Democratic representatives from Wisconsin and Ohio, concluded just that: as private school choice expands, it is increasingly important to help parents make educated decisions.
However, even when parents understand the tradeoffs, many still opt to waive their children’s special education rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to send them to schools they hope will better provide for their children.
Since Betsy DeVos’ nomination to be education secretary, Democrats have zeroed in on how private schools that receive taxpayer dollars are regulated.
Democratic representatives Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and Marcia Fudge of Ohio, asked the GAO to also look more broadly into accountability and transparency requirements for private school choice programs.
Overall, the GAO found that most programs have some kind of academic and administrative accountability, but far fewer require financial accountability from schools.
Among the findings:
• One third of 27 private school choice programs examined by the GAO require that schools publicly report test results;
• Seventeen programs require participating private schools to perform background checks on staff;
• Fifteen programs require site visits;
• Fifteen programs require schools to prove that they are fiscally sound before they accept voucher dollars;
• Only eight programs are required to be audited annually.
Some program officials expressed concern to the GAO over the lack of financial accountability provisions for private schools—and their lack of authority to boot financially unstable schools from the program.
Still other program officials told the GAO they struggle to make sure private schools are in compliance with general rules due to limited resources.
In addition to requiring states to inform parents about what special education rights they lose when they taking a voucher, the GAO also recommends that the Department of Education review the information states publish relating to vouchers and federal education law and work with states to correct any inaccuracies.
The report has met little resistance from private school choice supporters, who are often wary of increased government regulation of choice programs, especially from the federal level.
“Broadly speaking, I agree with the results—we want parents to make informed decisions,” said Michael McShane, the director of national research at EdChoice, a school choice advocacy and research group. “As a person who frequently fears government overreach—it’s rarely government overreach when a government informs people of their rights.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as GAO: Vouchers Leave Parents in Dark On Special Ed. Rights