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Voucher Programs and Children with Disabilities


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As a thought leader in public policy and in response to increased state-led legislative activity in support of vouchers and other tax payer funded programs such as education savings accounts and tax credits (termed throughout as voucher programs) the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) surveyed its membership and examined nationally the impact of these programs on students with disabilities and their families. As a result of this work, COPAA published the 2016 report School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities: Examining Impact in the Name of Choice. The report is comprehensive and includes a state-by-state analysis of voucher programs, the fundamental legal findings related to these programs and to student civil rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other federal laws.

COPAA’s report helps answer critical questions that policy makers, parents and advocates must have including the following:

What are the pros to utilizing a voucher program for children with disabilities?

 Programs can create options for some families when:

  • The public school has failed their child and parents forego or cannot afford due process to secure better services in the public school.
  • A family has the financial means to offset the cost of tuition and other fees (e.g. transportation, private services needed that exceed a basic level) at a private or religious school.
  • A state offers an amount that meets full tuition costs due to a specific disability (e.g. dyslexia, autism, or includes funds to cover transportation or other necessary services and supports.)

What are the cons to utilizing a voucher program for children with disabilities?

Many state programs cut the child off from their rights under IDEA. The child is then no longer entitled to the special education and related services or procedural protections mandated by IDEA.

Families face severe consequences when IDEA rights are terminated such as:

  •  The evaluation conducted to diagnose the disability(s) and inform school teams about the nature of the child’s disability is not viewed as a valuable tool by the private/religious school.
  • Students whose needs ultimately cannot be met [and are discharged from the private school] are then required to start the evaluation and planning process under IDEA all over again – wasting precious time during a valuable formative stage of development.
  • Parents have no recourse and are forced to start over in the IDEA process; meanwhile, the child is languishing and not receiving needed services and support.

Families encounter financial strain because the funding provided by the voucher program does not cover transportation or other necessary services and supports that a student needs.

 Private or religious schools push out children they determine too hard to educate. There is little to no protection if the child is asked to leave the private/religious school.

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.

There is often no accountability for student outcomes in a private or religious school. Typical "consumer" accountability does not always work as students with disabilities are often counseled out or found not eligible for private school due to the complexities or challenges of their needs.

 Too little data exists to compare the academic outcomes of students with disabilities [and other students] participating in voucher programs to public school students.


Since COPAA issued its report in June 2016, new reports have emerged that support our findings[i] and demonstrate new and alarming results that include students regressing in their academic progress and failing to learn to read and meet math proficiency standards[ii].


COPAA urges the Congress, the Administration and state policymakers to carefully consider the development of voucher program policy so that it can support academic achievement and protect all children, including students with disabilities. 


What should Federal policy makers consider in creating federally funded voucher programs?

  • Protect the legal rights of children; including ensuring full alignment with the purpose and provisions of the IDEA, Section 504, the ADA and all other civil rights laws. Families should not have to sign away important civil rights to participate in publicly funded education programs.
  •  Protect IDEA, Title I and other Federal formula funds from being used to fund voucher programs.
  •  Require schools that receive public funds to participate in all state required assessments and other required elements of a state accountability system.
  •  Require states to publish assessment scores, graduation rates, and other outcome data of students with disabilities in all schools, including those using voucher program funding.

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 Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Assure such programs are not creating a publicly financed (in whole or in part) segregated education system for students with disabilities. Voucher programs should not be used for schools segregated on the basis of a specific disability, disability status, race, religion, gender etc.

Assure IDEA supports an express entitlement to all IDEA rights under any voucher program in any educational setting.


What should state policymakers consider in creating state funded voucher programs?

  • Invest in public education to: assure that there are equitable resources; well-trained, knowledgeable and skilled teachers to provide quality instruction to children of all abilities; and steps taken to close achievement gaps and correct failing schools.
  • Protect the legal rights of children including monitoring and enforcing compliance with federal and state laws; and, ensuring that voucher programs using public funds are in full alignment with the purpose and provisions of the IDEA, Section 504, the ADA and all other civil rights laws. Families should not have to sign away important civil rights to participate in publicly funded education programs.
  •  Include reasonable costs for transportation or other services necessary to make the choice equitably available to all families.
  • Require that all schools accepting public funding must include all students in statewide assessments, making all test results publicly available under one state system.
  •  Retain the same high standards for teacher qualifications as required by the State.
  • Provide oversight and monitoring of participating [private/religious] schools.
  •  Assure the same level of accountability of participating private schools as any other school in the state.
  •  Fund and conduct studies to evaluate academic achievement, graduation and retention rates, bullying/harassment reports, segregation and similar measures, both for students accepting voucher funds and for those who remain in public schools. Comparative data is essential to good public policy.
  • Provide tools and supports to parents and children for navigating the complicated nuances of voucher programs. Give special attention to:
  • a student’s role in the decision‐making process, and,
  • how best to educate families about their options.

Students with disabilities and their families should have all the information they need to make an informed choice.


[i] School Choice: Private School Choice Programs Are Growing and Can Complicate Providing Certain Federally Funded Services to Eligible Students, Government Accounting Office, August 2016 at: https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-712


[ii] Abdulkadiroglu, Atila; Pathak, Parag A.; Walters, Christopher R. “School Vouchers and Student Achievement: Evidence from the Louisiana Scholarship Program,” NBER Working Paper, 2016. doi: 10.3386/w21839.

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