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Legal Protections and Vouchers: Special Needs Student’s Forfeiture

Proponents of school vouchers contend that more choice levels the playing field for families who live in communities with struggling public schools.

A common refrain among choice advocates is that a student’s zip code shouldn’t determine what kind of educational opportunities he or she receives.

But, a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says school choice programs in several states fall short of providing equal educational opportunities and protections to students with special needs or disabilities.

As the Washington Post reports, the GAO study found that parents of special needs students who send their children to private schools through voucher or education savings accounts programs often forfeit legal rights guaranteed to them in public schools. What’s more, the study found, many states fail to inform parents that they are sacrificing these rights.

Well-informed or misinformed?

The GAO studied 27 school choice programs in 15 states, according to The Post, and interviewed several families with disabled or special needs students who had participated in a school choice program.

The report found that only one-third of the state programs made testing special needs students a requirement for schools. Ten out of the 27 state programs required no background checks for school staff. And, while public schools are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide specialized education plans, speech therapy, and tutoring to special needs students, private schools face no such requirements.

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According to The Post, GAO recommended that the U.S. Department of Education require states to inform parents of special needs students about how choosing a private school potentially impacts their legal protections. In response, federal education officials said the department does not have the authority to make such a requirement.

ED officials also argued that the report assumes parents are unaware of the fact that they are sacrificing legal protections, when in fact parents may be willing to forfeit those protections for a private education.

As acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitation services at ED, Kimberly M. Richey wrote:

“Parents may believe that educational benefits or services provided by private schools to their children with disabilities outweigh any rights conferred by [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] or services provided by public schools.”

Engaging your community

In the absence of better disclosures from state and government agencies, public schools need to more effectively communicate the types of protections afforded special needs students.

One way to do that is to engage the community in a dialogue about special education, either by asking parents to submit questions or provide suggestions for how to improve special-ed programs, or by sharing information out to parents and families.

Across the country, public school districts continue to look for ways to make their schools more attractive to students and families. The ability to provide special education services and provide protections to eligible students is potentially a major piece of that value proposition, provided schools have a way to effectively communicate with parents.

How does your school or district engage parents of special needs students about the services you provide? What types of conversations is your community having about school choice? Tell us in the comments.