Understood.org hosted a webinar with Lindsey Jones, the Vice President, and Chief Policy & Advocacy Officer at NCLD (National Center for Learning Disabilities), to explain school vouchers and what it means for students with disabilities and their families. Here are some highlights:
What is a school voucher?
A school voucher is a legal mechanism that allows a state to distribute ed dollars directly to parents instead of a school. Parents can use those dollars from a voucher for a private school of their choice.
The basic concept is taking public dollars and giving them to parents to spend in a private school of their choice… There are about 61 different programs across the nation, and each one sets different requirements about who can participate.
If I’m a parent listening out there and hearing about school voucher programs, and i take that voucher program, how much money does the school voucher give me to pay for whatever private school? Would it cover all of a private school’s tuition?
The critical thing we see across the nation is that any of these types of programs fail to cover the full cost of private school tuition. And definitely, if you are talking about placing your student in one of our specialized schools, these are schools with much higher tuition. The average voucher range of what you get across the nation is about $2,500 to about $8,000 [note: SB 193, as written, would have provided about $3,600 per student], but it doesn’t tend to cover the full cost of the tuition. It certainly doesn’t cover any additional fees that the private school may charge or transportation.
What are some of the drawbacks to taking a voucher?
One of the biggest drawbacks is that when you take a voucher, you generally give up all rights to services under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Only in a handful of states, maybe 2 or 3, do you keep it.
You have to be aware–you’re literally signing away your child’s rights to services under IDEA. That’s your right to attend an IEP meeting, the right to have an IEP, the right to a free an appropriate education, the right to disagree with the school, the right to have protections for your child around discipline.
So our concern is to get these dollars in a private setting would give up those rights. In addition, we have reviewed all 61 of these programs and I’m very concerned about the lack of information that’s out there for parents about what they’re doing when they give up those rights.
I think that many parents may be looking to change the setting that their child is in and their child may not yet be diagnosed with a disability. And they may think, well, if I move them to a new setting, they’ll get a fresh start. And then, when they’re in the new setting, problems emerge, and they’ve actually set themselves back and it actually takes even longer to have to go back to public school to be able to have an evaluation, and get those services provided. Private schools are not under any obligation to serve students with disabilities or provide services. So parents really need to do their homework about these programs.
Can you tell us a little more about the research that NCLD did [about school vouchers]?
We found that by and large, the largest number of programs are targeted to students with disabilities. And one concern we have about that is, we fought for a long time to make sure that all of our students with disabilities and without, have access to the same high standards and inclusionary education. So, in many of the cases where students are taking voucher programs only for students with disabilities, we’re seeing almost a re-segregation of these students and they’re being put in very specialized settings and not having a lot of contact with general education peers. That goes against some of the research that we have that shows that contact with general education peers can be very beneficial for later life outcomes.
Another concern is that in rural areas, it’s very challenging for parents to have choice. It is very challenging for them to be near a private school program. Often times, distance can be a very large concern for them to handle, and transportation is almost never covered. So, it’s not really a choice in those settings if you don’t have anywhere to go.
What we look at in those cases is: What is it doing to your overall education budget in your state? How is it impacting your local public school’s bottom line and the investments your state is making in those services?
If I’m concerned about school vouchers, do you have any suggestions from NCLD about what to do or what to think about?
We absolutely understand the urgency for our children to be able to have a good setting and to be learning. It’s an overwhelming and concerning situation.
That said, we have a great sensitivity around this and around parent choice. But when we look at this systemically, unfortunately, most vouchers in this nation are really not available to low-income parents or parents who live in a rural setting. That’s because there are a lot of other fees and costs and there’s great distance that would have to be traveled. So, there are those types of logistical concerns.
Basically, the money is coming from other public schools in the state. From our perspective, we could be using that money better in public schools, and we work hard to do that every day. We don’t need to be draining money away from those schools–we should be investing wisely in them.
I mentioned, of course, our concern about giving up IDEA rights. If you’re taking tax dollars and using them for education, you should have all of the rights that you’re entitled to with those dollars. So with any program, the rights should travel to the private school and they should have to enforce them.
This idea of re-segregation, or we can better work with those children “over there” is something we’ve fought against for years. its part of the reason we work so hard in personalized learning… when you leave school, you live in a life next to everyone else. and we want to prepare our kids early for that. and we want to reduce the stigma that comes from being different. that’s a concern as well.