The Case for Special Education Vouchers: Parents Should Decide When Their Disabled Child Needs a Private Placement

Article excerpt

The big battles over school vouchers in American education have focused on programs serving low-income children who live in urban areas. Milwaukee's program, begun in 1990, is the biggest and oldest in the country, and the District of Columbia effort, funded by the federal government, has been the most carefully studied. Both have been focal points of intense, partisan disputes, and both have been threatened by legislative actions in the past several months. But, even when they are considered together, those two programs are not as large as a hardly known, originally noncontroversial voucher innovation, the special education voucher. Four states--Florida (1999), Georgia (2007), Ohio (2003), and Utah (2005)--have special education voucher programs that together serve more than 22,000 students.

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Special education voucher laws are very simple. The parents of any child found in need of a special education (in Ohio, only students with autism) can ask the school district to pay for their child's education at a school the parent has identified as appropriate.

Special education vouchers have a political advantage that vouchers for low-income students lack: they can benefit not only the poverty-stricken disadvantaged, almost never a politically potent interest group, but also anyone who has a child with disabilities, a population that crosses all social and economic boundaries. The concept also stands on particularly strong constitutional grounds, inasmuch as special education vouchers add nothing in principle to the rights established by federal law in 1974. Part of the historic extension of equal educational opportunity rights to the disabled, Public Law 94-142, the Education of All-Hand- icapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was one of the most popular pieces of federal education legislation ever enacted.

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That law has four key provisions: 1) every child, no matter how disabled, has a light to a free and appropriate education, which can take place in either a public or private setting; 2) an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) must be designed for each child in consultation with his or her parents; 3) the child should be educated in the "least restrictive environment"; and 4) parents can object to the educational provisions for their child by requesting a "due process" hearing with an independent hearing officer, whose decisions can be appealed to the courts (see sidebar). But schools tend to win most legal challenges brought by parents. Given the long odds and financial and psychological toll of suing the same people who take care of their child each day, most parents tend to accept whatever services are offered, even if the services fill well short of those required by law.

As special education has evolved over the decades since IDEA was enacted, public school districts have provided most of the special education services students have required. But a small percentage of students are educated at private schools, most often because the district has deemed that facility to be the most appropriate and to provide the least restrictive environment, given the nature and severity of the child's disability. Many of the private schools serving the disabled have a religious affiliation, but that has not proven to be a barrier to government funding of student placements under IDEA.

As of 2007, there were 5,978,081 students in special education nationwide, with fewer than 100,000 in private placements. Only 67,729 were being served by private schools at parental initiative, a mere 1.1 percent of disabled students, and a trivial 0.14 percent of the 49.6 million students in public education. Students placed in private schools are more likely to be autistic, have multiple disabilities, or suffer from emotional disturbances than those students who receive services in the public schools (see "Debunking a Special Education Myth," check the facts, Spring 2007). …