Special Education

Bush Panel Reports Concerns On Spec. Ed. Vouchers

By Lisa Goldstein — April 30, 2003 3 min read
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A national advisory panel on disability issues has raised questions about how a federal special education voucher program could ever work.

The brightest red flag? Students with disabilities would give up protection under federal law when they attend private schools through voucher programs, says the report released by the presidentially appointed National Council on Disability.

The main federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, gives parents legal recourse if public schools aren’t meeting their children’s needs. But if children voluntarily moved to private schools, as many presumably would under a voucher plan, they would leave that security behind, the report says.

The release of the April 15 report, “School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities,” comes as members of Congress work through revising the IDEA. Lawmakers are contemplating setting up a federal school choice program for students with disabilities under the IDEA. First passed in 1975 and up for reauthorization this year, the law guarantees special education students a free, appropriate public education.

“We want these questions answered by Congress before they make any kind of decision,” said Martin Gould, a senior research specialist for the National Council on Disability. “They need to proceed carefully as they go through the process and deal with these fairly critical issues.”

The report from the 15-member council—which has 14 appointees named by President Bush and one Clinton administration holdover—also calls into question whether a federal program should be based on the sole statewide voucher program in existence for special education, a Florida initiative held up by some congressional lawmakers as a model.

Florida’s McKay Scholarship program offers vouchers for students whose parents believe the public schools haven’t met their children’s needs—whether or not the school is considered failing in the eyes of the state.

But the report says the private schools in the program are not held to the same standards as public schools. Therefore, in any federal voucher program for special education students, Congress should consider whether private schools must be held accountable to the same degree as public schools for their education of students with disabilities, the report advises.

Nascent Plans

So far, the idea of a special education voucher program is just that: an idea. Lawmakers have not yet introduced any detailed plans.

Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., had feinted at amending the proposed IDEA with a measure allowing states to use federal money to create such programs, but then decided to hold back on the idea while he addresses colleagues’ concerns. He plans to introduce the measure in the coming weeks.

Rep. DeMint, away for Congress’ spring recess, could not be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee said the report underestimates parents’ judgment. The Senate education committee may include a school choice program in its upcoming proposed version of the IDEA, or lawmakers on the committee may propose the idea in separate amendments.

“This report appears to be another example of the education establishment starting from the unfortunate perspective that parents are unable to make the best choices about their children’s education,” said Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the education panel’s chairman. “We believe that parents ... with good information and real options, can make the best choices and decisions about their children’s ability to learn.”

The report points out what it views as other pitfalls in voucher programs that apply to students with disabilities. For example, the report says, voucher programs may result in greater economic segregation of schools.

Vouchers typically cover only a portion of what private schools charge for a special education student, which usually is considerably higher than the tuition for a regular student, it says. Thus, the report argues, such a program holds the potential to benefit disproportionately the affluent, who can afford to supplement vouchers to cover the actual costs.

Public schools may be left to serve only poor students with more significant disabilities at a reduced level of financial support, the report argues.

In addition, it says, special education voucher programs could be devastating to the infrastructure in school districts already set up to handle students with disabilities. If a district lost students with disabilities to private schools, the money provided by the state for their education would follow them to their new campus.

Then districts would be less equipped, the report asserts, to serve the students who remain in district schools.

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