Sunday, October 7, 2012

Vouchers for Special Education? The Threat to Students

Throughout this campaign, Governor Romney has been largely silent on one of the issues that is most important to families with children with special needs -- education. Romney and Ryan have a consistent theme of downsizing government and reducing government control in almost every area, including education. While they are not saying specifically how that would affect federal programs that ensure that children with special needs receive an appropriate education, there have been suggestions that have families worried.

As a parent of a third-grader with special needs, I've learned that getting the services she's entitled to is very hard. It requires research, professional advice, and the support of parents who have been through the same challenges. And that's in a county that's supposed to be one of the best for special education. And it's with the protections that the federal government provides. Imagine if those protections were loosened.

The law that governs special education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the biggest issue about the program is that it has been woefully underfunded and therefore not as effective as it could be. IDEA provides about $11.6 billion to states and local education entities each year to serve roughly 6 million students, which is far less than the districts need for these specialized services.

Romney wants to turn the program into a voucher system. It makes sense from a perspective of "reduce the federal government and let the states and parents pick up the costs," but in practice, the idea poses a substantial risk to families who are already struggling with major financial needs. Read about his plan in Education Week.

In this commentary, "Romney's Radical Plan for Title I and IDEA,"a speech therapist in a public school points out the flaws in Romney's logic:

"Not all Title I or IDEA kids are the same; not all need identical services....Imagine two IDEA special education students, Abby and Ben. Abby has only a mild speech impairment, and receives 30 minutes/wk of speech therapy at school. But Ben has multiple, severe disabilities. He requires Life Skills classes; speech, physical, and occupational therapy; an orientation and mobility specialist; and an aide to help him with activities of daily living like eating and toileting. Will Abby and Ben each get the same flat voucher amount to put in their backpacks? If not, what formula will you use to determine how much each student should get?

"And of course, Title I and IDEA help pay for programs and equipment that are not student-specific. For example, my district has all kinds of equipment to help kids with disabilities participate in regular PE classes with their peers. One piece of equipment may be used throughout the day by multiple students. I'm a speech therapist, and we have test instruments and therapy materials that we share across schools, when needed. It's not always cost-effective to buy software for one student with a learning disability, but it becomes much cheaper the more site licenses you buy....Does anyone really believe that a tiny charter school is going to be able to provide all of this support on Johnny's $1,000 voucher?

"[In Romney's opinion] we cannot help each other out by pooling money for insurance so that everyone can have health care. We cannot help each other out by pooling education funds so that all kids, no matter how severe their needs, can get the education they deserve. No, Romney's going to do away with any hint of collectivity; put a random dollar value on your child's education; and give him a coupon for Voucherville instead."

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