School Choice & Charters

School Voucher Programs Leave Parents in the Dark on Disability Rights, Feds Say

By Arianna Prothero — November 30, 2017 4 min read
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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 are making when they opt to participate in a private school choice program.

Expanding private school choice is an education policy priority for the Trump administration and in particular U.S. Education Secretary 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.

EdWeek Explains: What’s the Difference Between Vouchers and Education Savings Accounts?

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,” says the GAO report.

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 U.S. Department of Education and the six largest private school choice programs, among others.

Only three of the 15 programs specifically 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 estimates 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.

The report, which was requested by Democratic representatives from Wisconsin and Ohio, says that as private school choice expands across the country, it is increasingly important to help parents make informed decisions.

“As more than half of the current private school choice programs are designed specifically for students with disabilities, it is critical that parents have access to quality information about changes in special education rights when they are considering moving their child from public to private school,” the report concludes.

However, even when parents understand the tradeoffs they are making, 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, as my colleague Christina Samuels has reported.

Financial Accountability?

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.

“For example, officials in one program described being concerned that a particular school’s buildings were unsafe,” says the report. “However, they said that the choice program’s statute does not contain requirements related to the safety of participating schools, and the city must issue a safety notice before program staff could remove the school from the program.”

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.

You can read the full report here: Private School Choice, Federal Actions Needed to Ensure Parents Are Notified About Changes in Rights for Students With Disabilities.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.