Questions Every Parent of a Child with a Disability Should Ask Before Taking a Voucher
About half the states have at least one voucher program, whether a traditional voucher, tuition tax credit or an education savings account. Many of these state programs are specific to students with disabilities; however, even with programs specifically targeting students with disabilities, students using a voucher will not necessarily receive a better – or even an adequate – education. Because private schools often lack the ability to appropriately serve students with disabilities, parents should ask themselves the following questions before they make the decision to opt for a voucher.
1. ARE YOU PREPARED TO GIVE UP SOME OR ALL OF YOUR CHILD’S IDEA RIGHTS?
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public schools are required to provide students with a free appropriate public education, comprehensive evaluations to determine what may impede their learning, an individualized education program (IEP), a least restrictive learning environment, updates about student performance and progress, and procedural safeguards that allow parents to ensure their child is educationally benefiting from the school’s special education program. These rights, however, are not guaranteed to students whose parents choose to enroll them in private schools. Under most state laws the use of a voucher is considered the choice of the parent and, thus, these students with disabilities do not retain their full IDEA rights when they use a voucher to attend a private school. For example, while some states have mandated that an IEP be created, families using a voucher do not have a right to a due process hearing if the plan is not followed. Some states actually require that parents formally sign a waiver of their child’s IDEA rights to take advantage of a voucher, while others strip students of these rights without formal notice.
2. DOES YOUR CHILD NEED, OR CAN YOU INDEPENDENTLY AFFORD SPECIAL EDUCATION AND RELATED SERVICES NOT PROVIDED BY YOUR PRIVATE SCHOOL?
Public schools are required by law to provide students with related services that allow the students to access their education. This includes services like occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy, as well as transportation to and from school. Private schools accepting vouchers do not have to offer the same services. Most voucher programs do not provide students with funds for transportation, so parents must independently arrange and pay for their child’s transportation to and from school. Some private schools may offer various therapies, but they are not required to do so. The onus is on parents to find out which, if any, services are offered at the private schools, and to determine whether their family can afford to pay for these services on their own.
3. CAN YOUR CHILD MEET THE ADMISSIONS REQUIREMENTS FOR THE PRIVATE SCHOOL?
Public schools are required by law to educate students with disabilities. Most private schools accepting vouchers are treated the similarly: they can choose not to take students for a number of reasons, including disability. Private schools may also evaluate a child’s academic achievements and disciplinary history when considering them for admission.
4. ARE YOUR ONLY OPTIONS SEGREGATED SETTINGS?
Students with disabilities may not have many options for inclusive, private education. Because private voucher schools often reject students with disabilities or do not have the resources necessary to serve them, the only schools accepting them may be schools especially designed for students with disabilities. Parents of public school students with disabilities should consider whether the benefits of the disability-specific programming at private schools outweighs the opportunities for inclusion that exist at the public school.
5. WILL YOUR CHILD’S DISABILITY INCREASE HIS OR HER CHANCES OF BEING DISCIPLINED OR EXPELLED?
In public schools, students with disabilities have additional protections in the disciplinary process. If a school wants to suspend or expel a child with an IEP for more than 10 school days, the school must convene a meeting to make a “manifestation determination.” If the child’s disability caused the behavior in question, then the school cannot discipline the child for that behavior. If the child’s behavior was unrelated to his or her disability, then the school’s policies and their state’s laws and regulations may allow them to discipline the child, which could include restraint, seclusion, suspension and expulsion. In general, however, private schools accepting vouchers do not have to provide these additional protections. Students with disabilities who have challenging behaviors are, therefore, more susceptible to being suspended or expelled by private schools.