School Vouchers’ Empty Promise to Special Ed. Students

The pro-voucher movement has found a growing target audience: special education students. At least seven states now have programs that provide public funding for special-needs populations to attend private schools and additional states have been considering similar programs.

Lacking any proper accountability and oversight, these programs strip legal protections for parents and their children.

“Vouchers for students with special needs may force parents to waive federally protected rights in exchange for promises that often go unfulfilled, and services provided by non-certified staff in private schools,” explains NEA Special Education Specialist John Riley.

That means they no longer have a right to a “free, appropriate public education” or the specific services that come along with that as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The basic premise of IDEA is that all children with disabilities have a federally protected civil right to a free and appropriate public education that meets their specific needs in the least restrictive environment.

That didn’t stop lawmakers in Wisconsin recently from pushing a bill that would have taken up to $300 million away from public schools – already slammed by deep budget cuts – to pay for private school tuition. The Wisconsin Education Association Council denounced the bill, calling it a “privatization voucher scheme devoid of oversight and accountability [that would] result in a loss of protection under the law for parents and their children.”

Rep. Sony Pope-Roberts called the bill “the worst piece of legislation I have ever seen.”

Testifying before the Wisconsin state senate, special education teacher Paul Zajichek pointed out that the bill contained no mandates that would ensure that each child be taught by a certified special education teacher.

“If there is any group of kids that need certified teachers educating them, it is this group of kids,” Zajichek said. “Unfortunately, many teachers in private schools will not have to undergo the same type of rigorous academic training that I had to. It is not only unfair to me, but it is also completely unfair to the students.”

The voucher bill passed the state Assembly but stalled in the Senate in March.

Lawmakers in Georgia considered a bill that would permit children with severe disabilities to receive a voucher without any showing that they attended a public school, were diagnosed with a disability, received an individualized education program (IEP), and that the parents were not satisfied with the implementation of the IEP. Currently, special education students are required to spend at least one year in a public school before applying for a voucher. If the bill had become law, many students could have entered the voucher program without ever experiencing the programs and accommodations that serve students with special needs. Fortunately, Governor Nathan Deal vetoed the bill earlier this month.

In addition to being a risky educational venture, this proposal would have further harmed students who remain behind in public schools. Georgia has cut education funding by $1 billion and faces diminishing property tax revenue this year. Diverting even more public funds to invest in a risky voucher program would have only worsened the budget crunch.

The National Education Association urges lawmakers to turn away from unproven expensive and ineffective voucher programs, and instead provide full funding for IDEA, and implement reforms that work, such as smaller class size so teachers can provide more individual attention and professional development for general education teachers who teach children with special needs.

“Students with disabilities are entitled to the services and accommodations they need to receive an appropriate public education and achieve postsecondary success,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “What we need to use are proven programs, not experiments in privatizations.”