Dana Goldstein is a noted education journalist who joined the New York Times shortly after Trump’s inauguration. As she writes, she began to focus on vouchers since that would be the focus of this new administration.
Betsy DeVos has held up the Florida voucher program as a national model, so Goldstein went to Florida to learn about the McKay Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers for students with disabilities (Jeb Bush wanted vouchers for the general population, but his referendum to change the state constitution was rejected by voters, and the voucher legislation he passed anyway was overturned by the courts, leaving only the McKay program in place.) Thirty thousands students with disabilities are enrolled in the program.
Goldstein writes that the McKay voucher program has a hidden cost: students relinquish their state and federal rights when they leave the public schools for a private school. Many parents are unaware that they abandon their civil rights protections under the IDEA law when they leave the public schools.
Vouchers for special needs students have been endorsed by the Trump administration, and they are often heavily promoted by state education departments and by private schools, which rely on them for tuition dollars. So for families that feel as if they are sinking amid academic struggles and behavioral meltdowns, they may seem like a life raft. And often they are.
But there’s a catch. By accepting the vouchers, families may be unknowingly giving up their rights to the very help they were hoping to gain. The government is still footing the bill, but when students use vouchers to get into private school, they lose most of the protections of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
During Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearings, she spoke glowingly about the Florida program. Senator Tim Kaine asked her what she thought about students forfeiting their rights under federal law, but she was unfamiliar with the federal law. She thought that the provision of services should be left to the states, and Sen. Kaine was surprised that she did not realize that students with special needs were protected by federal law.
As Goldstein notes, many parents are disappointed with the services provided by their public school, but when they get to the voucher school, they discover they no longer have the rights they were used to.
In the meantime, public schools and states are able to transfer out children who put a big drain on their budgets, while some private schools end up with students they are not equipped to handle, sometimes asking them to leave. And none of this is against the rules….
Legal experts say parents who use the vouchers are largely unaware that by participating in programs like McKay, they are waiving most of their children’s rights under IDEA, the landmark 1975 federal civil rights law. Depending on the voucher program, the rights being waived can include the right to a free education; the right to the same level of special-education services that a child would be eligible for in a public school; the right to a state-certified or college-educated teacher; and the right to a hearing to dispute disciplinary action against a child.
It’s not just Florida. Private school choice programs in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wisconsin also require parents to waive all or most IDEA rights. In several other states, the law is silent on the disability rights of voucher students.
One of the children she profiles is attending an online charter school and getting visits from specialists two-to-three times a week. What he does not get is the social interaction with other children.
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