Wednesday, March 8, 2017

When is School Choice Not Really a Choice? Insights from the National Association of State Directors of Special Education

This morning I attended a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress called "What's at Stake for Americans with Disabilities in the Trump Era." Advocates, families, and people with disabilities covered a wide range of issues, including Medicaid, Social Security, civil rights, and education. You can watch the hour-long event here.

In the next few days, I'll report on some of the health topics that were discussed, but I want to start with the topic of vouchers and special education, which was addressed very well by Valerie Williams, director of government relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

"What's come up a lot lately is the word 'voucher.' Don't get hung up on the word voucher," she said. "When someone talks to you about vouchers, education savings accounts, or scholarships, it's all the same thing. The problem is not the voucher, but the effort to privatize the public school system. Anything that will allow public tax dollars to be diverted to a private school that your child may not be able to attend, that's problematic. Students may be turned away based on disability, sexual orientation, past disciplinary records, or religion."

She offered a realistic scenario of a family with a disabled child that gets a $10,000 to send their child to the school of their choice. First, the parents must sign away their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which include required services, legal protections, and reporting on outcomes. A few things can happen:
  • The school may be a good fit for the child, but the cost may be $20,000, only half of which is covered by the voucher. Or the voucher may not cover the costs of books, uniforms, or transportation, which can be thousands of dollars. "So when you're discussing a middle- or low-income family, they can't make that leap, which means it's not accessible to them, and they honestly don't have a choice."
  • The school may tell them in the first few months that they can't offer the specialized services or equipment that their child needs, in which case the family will have to forego those needs or return to the public system, which is mandated to provide those services.
"If you're in a rural area," Williams explained, "the problem is even bigger. Because funds are diverted outside the public school system, and the only school is the public school, so you literally have no other option, and they have less money to work with."

In closing, Williams said, "We need to make decisions as taxpayers and legislators that will benefit the masses, not a few students. I'm concerned that children and adults with disabilities are going to be sicker, less independent, and not educated to the fullest extent they could be, based on some of the ideas that are floating around right now."

She encouraged the attendees to contact their state and federal elected officials and explain not just what they're against, but also how existing programs benefit them and their families.


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