"Far too many students are being forced to relinquish important civil rights in order to access public education funds. A State should not be able to use "choice” to skirt their responsibility to provide a free, appropriate public education [to students with disabilities] and federal funds should not be made available for vouchers unless all student civil rights are fully upheld.”
~ Denise Marshall, COPAA Executive Director
The issue of school choice and vouchers in particular, has become a frequent topic for families of students with and without disabilities. Generally vouchers are a state issue; to date, the only federal dollars spent on vouchers are those approved for the District of Columbia schools and their families. However, in the past several years, the push to bring vouchers forward in federal policy has been consistent and strong. Part of the federal push is reflective of state action to invest their dollars in voucher programs. Some of these voucher programs are designed specifically for students with disabilities and some are not. And, most importantly, not all of the state voucher programs distinctly protect the civil rights of children with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) among other federal laws.
As a trusted resource for policy makers, including the U.S. Congress, COPAA is frequently brought into discussions about the voucher dilemma. In order to approach this fairly and to be responsive to the debate, we decided to:
- conduct an online survey of COPAAs’ membership;
- analyze state voucher policies and practices, specifically through the lens of the civil rights of children with disabilities; and,
- develop guiding state and federal policy recommendations, reflecting our Mission to shape and influence the debate.
Looking through the lens of [the rights of] children in special education, the list of pros and cons about vouchers may seem straightforward. However, when you delve into it, our members and our analysis helped us understand that:
- Parents often choose a voucher regardless of the availability of civil rights protections due to the urgency of their child needing to change schools.
- Parents like knowing they can explore their options when vouchers are available, even if they end up keeping their child in the neighborhood public school
- Little data exists with regard to families choosing vouchers that limit or terminate IDEA rights once those families leave the traditional public school.
- Voucher funding is rarely sufficient and generally does not cover the full cost of the child’s education, meaning that only parents with adequate finances have a choice.
- Some schools accept children with a disability (and the voucher funds) and then expel them for behavior or other reasons forcing the children back into a poor or inappropriate school situation.
- Special‐education specific voucher programs typically fail to include all students with disabilities and it is rare for programs to accept students who are twice exceptional.
- Too little data exists to compare the academic outcomes of students with disabilities [and other students] participating in voucher programs to public school students.
- Consider and clarify the legal expectations that attach to schools receiving significant funding from states with voucher programs, as well as the impact of the required waiver of students’ rights under the IDEA and all other civil rights statutes. Children with disabilities and their parents deserve clear evidence of the positive and negative consequences of policy decisions made for their benefit.
- Require schools that receive public funds to publish assessment score, graduation rates, and other outcome data of students with disabilities.
- Amend IDEA to create an express entitlement to rights under voucher programs. The purpose of a voucher is to provide choice, not to deny rights or abdicate responsibility.
The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice should issue a letter to:
- Clarify civil rights violations that may be linked to failure to provide a free and appropriate public education under Section 504, or equal access under the ADA.
- Assure such programs are not creating a publicly financed (in whole or in part) segregated education system for students with disabilities.
- Vouchers should not be used for schools segregated on the basis of a specific disability or disability status more generally.
- Conduct studies to evaluate test scores, graduation and retention rates, harassment reports, and similar measures, both for students accepting vouchers and for those who remain in public schools.
- Protect the legal rights of children; including full alignment with the purpose and provisions of the IDEA, Section 504, the ADA and all other civil rights laws.
- Include reasonable costs for transportation or other services necessary to make the choice equitably available to all families.
- Retain the requirement that all schools accepting vouchers must ensure all students participate in statewide assessments, making all test results publicly available.
- Retain high standards for teacher qualifications as required by the State.
- Provide oversight and monitoring of participating private schools.
- Assure the same level of accountability of participating private schools as any other school.
- Provide tools and supports to parents and children for navigating the often complicated nuances of school choice and give special attention to:
- a student’s role in the school choice decision‐making process; and
- how best to educate families about their school choice options.
Click here for the full COPAA Report
Our report clarifies that we still know far too little about the impact of voucher programs on students with disabilities and their families. Given the dearth of knowledge about best practices, protecting procedural safeguards and civil rights of children and the cost, both direct and indirect on children and families, it is too soon for the federal government to unilaterally make federal funds available for voucher programs.
COPAA is deeply committed to assuring every child with a disability has the protections, support and opportunity to achieve their full potential in school and in society and we will continue to strive to reinforce those values as we develop and conduct our work. We look forward to partnering with our members, with policy makers and with other national organizations to see our Mission fulfilled.