What special needs parents must know about school vouchers


By Meg Flanagan

We know a simple truth as military families: All schools are not created equal. And the resources and services available to us in one area may not be the same at our next duty station. In fact, they may not even be close.

For typically developing students, the lure of a school voucher or charter school has come to be seen as a way to level the playing field. Twelve states also have voucher programs specifically for students with special education needs.

What this means, in states with these programs, is that children with individual education plans (IEP) can be enrolled at private schools. The vouchers are provided to cover the tuition at the school.

This all sounds great, and it can be.

Ideally, students with needs that are not being met would exit the public school and enroll in a private school that has the means to meet those needs. That student would receive even better services and instruction, making excellent progress toward their IEP goals.

However, it doesn’t always work with way.

As military families, it’s important that we understand the differences between states and our rights under voucher programs. A recent New York Times article highlighted some of the issues that families have experienced in various voucher programs.

Before your family signs up for a special education voucher program, make sure you know what you are getting into.

Voucher amounts

This is a big one. Seeing the word “voucher” generally means that the total cost of something is covered. It can be totally covered, depending on where you live and what school you choose. Or it might not be.

Several states have a formula for determining award amounts. Florida, for example, calculates the cost of services that would have been offered in the public school setting (matrix). Then, it awards either the total cost of tuition and fees or the cost of the matrix as the McKay voucher amount, depending which is lower. So if your child’s services are less than the tuition and fees of the school you select, you are stuck paying the difference.

Arkansas and Georgia, as well as other states, use similar calculations to determine award amounts. Keep in mind that by sticking with public schools you are paying nothing–outside of any local or property taxes–for your child’s education.

Eligibility

Not all students are eligible for all voucher programs. Most programs stipulate that an IEP must have been in place at some point during the previous school year for any disability or reason. Some narrow down the list to specific disabilities or criteria. Still others, like Mississippi and Ohio, have special scholarships or vouchers for students with dyslexia or autism. Both states also have vouchers for students with more general special needs.

While all states reviewed for this article did have military exceptions, these pertained to enrollment in public school clauses. Most children need to have been enrolled in public school for at least one year prior to applying for special education vouchers. This is waived for military families who meet all other state-set criteria.

However, your child could still be denied a voucher if they don’t fit all the other requirements set by the state. So, even if you had a special education voucher at your last duty station, you might be denied one at your next post due to criteria differences.

Enrollment

Even if your child is found eligible for a voucher and you can pay the difference between that and the cost of school, your child still might not be admitted to a school.

Schools in the Louisiana special education school choice program still maintain their own enrollment and admissions standards. This means that your child–with or without special education needs–will still need to meet academic or assessment standards, as well as any other requirements of the school.

This is true in the other states with a specific special education school choice or voucher system. It is true of all voucher systems investigated for this article. The private school sets the standards for admissions and can deny your child admission. . . even with a voucher.

Disenrollment

Students enrolled in private schools must maintain behavior and discipline standards. Yes, even if their IEP is for behavior. Even if behavior issues are part of their specific concerns.

If students fail to follow the behavior standards, then the school can dole out consequences consistent with their stated discipline plan. Because these schools are outside of the public education system, that discipline plan may not include your right to lodge a complaint or have a hearing. Private schools do not fall under federal education laws. FOIA and FERPA do not apply to them.

Ultimately, your child might be asked to leave a private school for failure to behave appropriately. Your child could be asked to leave because of other reasons as well, like grades. Essentially, private schools work like at-will employers: Students are accepted but can also be asked to leave for a variety of reasons and without an opportunity to negotiate or investigate.

Teachers

Again, you are operating outside of the public education system. Private schools do not have to provide specific therapies or education methods to their students. Some states, like Arkansas, require that one teacher at the school hold a valid special education teaching certificate. Other states make no such stipulations.

What this means for you is that your child might not be taught by a trained special educator. If there are trained teachers in the school, they might not be assigned to your child. In Arkansas, as long as the teacher is on staff, not necessarily teaching students with special needs, then the school meets the requirements.

In many states, teachers at private schools do not need to be state certified. This is because the private schools often operate within private school accreditation networks and outside of public school teaching requirements. Most teachers will possess at least a college degree in education or a related field.

Services provided

Arkansas, as well as other states, also have families sign waivers. By signing a waiver, the school district doesn’t have to provide any services to your child above what they would offer a typical child in the private school.

This could be okay for you. Your child might not need additional services or might be getting them through TRICARE.

It could also be the opposite. Your kiddo might need several hours of intensive therapies daily or weekly. The public school no longer has to provide those services in accordance with the IEP, and the private school doesn’t have to offer them either.

Private schools still fall outside of IDEA and federal laws, even when students on special education vouchers are attending. Unless your state’s voucher program has specific rules about providing full support services and therapies, you might be out of luck.

Public schools do often provide some services to students enrolled in private schools. This is on a space-available basis and parents are in charge of transporting the child to and from the appointments. The therapy sessions can also be shorter and/or less frequent than if your child were in public school. Essentially, the service providers figure out a schedule with the public school kids, and if there is time left over it is opened up to students in private schools or those who are homeschooled.

Bottom line

Special education vouchers could be just what your child needs to shake up his education or thrive in a different setting.

By accepting voucher funds, you are also removing IDEA, FERPA, and FOIA protections from yourself and your child. You will be playing by the private school’s rules and living with the services they may or may not provide. Your child will be taught by teachers who may or may not be certified to teach. These teachers may or may not have special education experience. Your voucher may or may not cover the total cost of the private school, factoring in uniforms, tuition, fees, supplies, transport, and admissions costs.

Before you decide to accept a state special education voucher, it pays to do your homework. Investigate the school and teachers. Tally the total cost of everything. Assess whether your child will be getting the services they need. Make the best choice for your family once you have all the facts.

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