Voucher Programs? Heck no! Do Not Relinquishing Civil Liberties

For years, I advocated for the educational rights of my son and many other students with disabilities. I battled my local school district on behalf of my oldest son who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder at the age of six. He is now 21 years old, graduated with honors from high school, and currently attends college. It was a long and difficult uphill fight, one impossible to accomplish without the protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

I also know I would have not yielded positive results had this happened under the current administration and their insatiable push for the acceptance of the school voucher system. It is irritating to see uninformed parents of children with disabilities being conned into accepting school vouchers under the false premise that it affords better educational choices for their kids. It really irks me to think parents are relinquishing their constitutional rights to receive and use the vouchers.

DO NOT FALL FOR THIS SCAM

I am here to tell you it is a hoax, it is dubious, it is obscure, and it is not worth it. You cannot accept voucher programs in exchange for renouncing your and your child’s civil liberties. If you are not in tune with education law or know how to read “between the lines” of this scam, you are going to find yourself in a bad predicament while trying to help your child with disabilities achieve success through education under the current administration. Remember: you are your child’s advocate and protector.

What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

The basic premise of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is that all children with disabilities have a federally protected civil right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) possible. The right to FAPE ensures that students with disabilities have access to meaningful opportunities to participate in the same curriculum as non-disabled students, to meet the same high academic standards desired for all students. This is important. Essentially, under IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to receive accommodations and educational services needed to obtain an appropriate public education and achieve academic success like everyone else. The success of this program is based on the premise that accommodations and services are catered to the child’s individual educational needs and not their disability, as vouchers do. How much do you think your child will advance academically if their education program is catered based on their disability and not their needs?

School Voucher Programs and The Impact for Students with Disabilities

Think of school vouchers as state funded coupons parents can use to send their children to a private school. It is public funding used to cover all of part of the tuition at a private school. Yes, this totally screws with the separation of church and state, but nobody seems to be giving a damn about it. The voucher program aims to assign a fixed dollar amount per year [to a student] to attend a private (likely religious based) school of their choice, rather than attend a public school or utilize the money to pay for other educational expenses for eligible students.

Some voucher programs target students classified as low-income, while others focus on students with disabilities, students in military families, or foster care. In most cases, voucher amounts are not high enough to cover all the costs of the child’s education at a private school, leaving out critical costs that allow full access and involvement, such as transportation. What good is a voucher that allows you to send you child to private school ten miles away if transportation is not included? IDEA includes it.

People seeking to privatize education claim that voucher programs will provide children with special educational needs better access to education and services than those currently available under IDEA. People – this is a bunch of baloney. Why? Well, as a condition of accepting the voucher, parents must withdraw and relinquish the rights under IDEA and FAPE, including special education and related services associated with the private school placement. This means no protections, no accountability, no chance for enforcement. Seems like a host of rights to give up just for accepting an educational voucher.

There is no guarantee that voucher school choices would yield a better-quality education or provide more appropriate services for students with disabilities. In addition, there will be no accountability and no way to enforce implementation of your child’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP). For example, if the voucher [private] school decided that your child doesn’t need that extra hour to take the exam in a quiet environment, where they can excel and as stated in their IEP, you have no saying in the matter and neither does your child. You gave that right up when you agreed to use the voucher.

Nonetheless, intense discontent with public schools has many parents considering voucher programs. Having some sense of control over the school your child attends sounds reasonable, right? Wrong. The only control you will have with vouchers is the school of choice. After that, you are basically throwing your child with disabilities into the lion’s den: they will have no say, and neither will you. Private education should not come at the expense of relinquishing civil liberties. The educational alternatives provided by school vouchers, where students have access to individualized supports, services, therapies and instruction, sound like a plausible solution to the weakness of public school education as it relates to students with disabilities. But they are not, and you cannot be fooled. Here’s why:

  • Voucher programs terminate IDEA rights. This is incredibly important to know. Don’t give up your rights. Ever.
  • Vouchers drain money from public schools where your child could be receiving a FAPE in the LRE, without the need to relinquish your and your child’s civil rights.
  • Vouchers are taxpayer funds being used for private and religious schools, leading to taxpayer-funded discrimination.
  • The private school may decline to accept students based on their disability, they can decline to abide by the language stated in the IEP, or could segregate children with special needs from other students.
  • Voucher schools often use exceedingly harsh discipline to punish students, especially those with disabilities.  Some private schools participating in voucher programs use paddling or other forms of corporal punishment to control the behavior of students.
  • If your child is expelled, depending on which month this happens, the voucher school keeps the money.
  • Private voucher schools can suspend or expel students without due process, and are under no obligation to provide alternative education or services once this happens.

Still convinced the voucher program is what is best for your child? Then you are not reading properly. Let’s keep going.

Vouchers and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act):

You already gave up your civil liberties for the voucher. You would think it was worth it, right? Wrong. Voucher amounts vary from $2,000 to $27,000, with the median amount between $5,000 -$7,000. This is not enough to cover the full cost of tuition. The varying rates conflict with one of IDEA’s basic tenant:

IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) teams can only legally determine the student’s placement in the least restrictive environment (LRE) based on the student’s unique disability related needs set forth in their IEP, not based on diagnosis, specific disability, or due to the student’s need for general education curriculum modifications. This goes against what schools are doing with their voucher system, which is assigning different rates for vouchers based on disability classification. Seems prejudicial. These placements must be based on the student’s individual needs rather than the nature of the student’s disability.

Keep in mind that, if placement in a private school for a child with disabilities is the best way for the student to achieve a FAPE in the LRE, IDEA authorizes the enrollment. In this situation, that student will be provided with all special services and accommodations set forth in the IEP, at the district’s expense. Parents and children maintain all their rights as if the student was attending a public school, including due process in the event the IEP is not fully implemented. When parents accept vouchers or tax credits that cover the cost of private education these protections disappear. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights confirmed that parents who use the voucher waive their rights and their children’s rights under IDEA. That means no FAPE, no LRE, no due process, and no way of enforcing proper implementation of the accommodations under the IEP. You gave up this right when you agreed to receive the voucher.

As a parent, if you choose to use a voucher for your child to attend a private school, and the voucher school is not providing sufficient services, you are screwed. Your child is not entitled to compensatory services. As a matter of fact, in many states, private schools are not required to follow the IEP and can easily remove the student from the program. Basically, you gave up your and your child’s civil rights to get a voucher that places your child at a private school where there is no evidence they will receive an appropriate education, where there is no accountability, there is zero monitoring of the quality of education, and they can get kicked out at any time. Doesn’t sound very appealing to me.

School voucher programs are inconsistent, which does not benefit all students equally. Receiving public funds for private education choices does not mean that students with disabilities must surrender their rights under IDEA. Funding IDEA is the best way to improve the quality of education of students with disabilities without violating their civil liberties. Focus should be placed on these proven approaches rather than vouchers that offer parents empty promises while asking them to give up federally protected civil rights.

The purpose of a voucher is to give parents a choice, not to deny them rights or relinquish responsibility. Far too many students are being forced to relinquish important civil rights in order to access public education funds for private education. So much for the separation of church and state. States should not be permitted to use ‘choice’ so broadly it limits their responsibility to provide a FAPE, and federal funds should not be used for vouchers unless the student’s civil liberties are fully upheld in the process.

 

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