For many parents with disabled children in public school systems, the lure of the private school voucher is strong.
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.
Many parents, among them Tamiko Walker, learn this the hard way. Only after her son, who has a speech and language disability, got a scholarship from the John M. McKay voucher program in Florida did she learn that he had forfeited most of his rights.
“Once you take those McKay funds and you go to a private school, you’re no longer covered under IDEA — and I don’t understand why,” Ms. Walker said.
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.
“The private schools are not breaking the law,” said Julie Weatherly, a special-education lawyer who consults for school districts in Florida and other states. “The law provides no accountability measures.”
McKay is the largest of 10 such disability scholarship programs across the country. It serves over 30,000 children who have special needs. At the Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s education secretary, she cited research from the conservative Manhattan Institute, saying that “93 percent of the parents utilizing that voucher are very, very pleased with it.”
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.
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