Parents See Benefits in Spec. Ed. Vouchers, But No Silver Bullet
While the senators were lecturing, Tera Myers was fuming.
Myers, the mother of an adult son with Down syndrome, had traveled to Washington to support Betsy DeVos, then the nominee for U.S. secretary of education, during her confirmation hearing. DeVos, a staunch supporter of school choice programs such as vouchers, faced pointed questioning from skeptical lawmakers at the January hearing. Several of them said that such options leave students with disabilities behind.
Myers, who lives in Mansfield, Ohio, said she felt the questions were deeply unfair. Not only had a voucher program helped Myers provide the best education for her son, she said, but the choice options had pushed school districts in her area to improve their offerings as well.
“No one, from my perspective, is saying, ‘I don’t like public school,’ ” Myers said. “I believe, just from my experience, the competition has created better public schools and better private schools.”
But in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Lynn Ambert watched the same hearing live on C-SPAN with far more skepticism. Her 9-year-old son is eligible for a voucher under Florida’s program, and she wanted to use it. However, no private school in her area will accept Ayden, who has autism and behavioral disabilities. Even the schools that advertised on their websites that they offered behavioral programs turned her away.
School choice options, such as charter schools, vouchers, and educational savings accounts, have powerful support in Washington right now, including in the White House. In a recently released budget blueprint, the Trump administration has called for $1.4 billion in school choice funding; DeVos has also indicated her approval of choice for students with disabilities.
But for such students, some of those options come with trade-offs, including the loss of specific protections under the four-decade-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
While politicians debate how the federal government should back school choice, many states have forged their own paths by offering school choice programs aimed specifically at students with disabilities.
Many parents who accept those options say that the powers and protections that are outlined in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act existed for them only in theory. Battling a school district over their child’s education was something they didn’t have the time, money, or knowledge to take on.
“Are you going to spend your time arguing with politics, or are you going to teach your child?” said Lynn McMurray, a Prescott, Ariz., mother who is home schooling three of her children using Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account, which provides state funds to parents that they can use to pay for tuition, school supplies, online programs, or therapy.
But even parents who are happy with their school choice say they realize that they are benefiting both from having good private school options available to them and financial resources to supplement a voucher, if necessary.
Cynthia Greaux of Royal Palm Beach, Fla., uses Florida’s McKay Scholarship to pay part of the tuition costs for her two children, Tyler, 14 and Chloe, 8. Both have dyslexia. McKay is the oldest and largest voucher program in the country specifically for students with disabilities; more than 31,000 children in Florida use that program to pay for public or private school.
Greaux said she knows that not all parents can pay thousands of dollars for expensive neuropsychological assessments, as well as the balance of private school tuition for one child, let alone two.
She noted that her public school district offers a multitude of choices—from arts-focused programs to certificates for budding web designers. Why not, Greaux asked, a special program for children with dyslexia?
“I don’t feel like my kids’ needs were all that special,” she said. But her son, who was doing well in public school through one reading program, was switched to another that didn’t work for him.
“By putting the right services at the [public] schools, you could solve a lot of problems. … I find it mind-boggling that they can’t staff for such a common learning disability.”
The umbrella term “school choice” encompasses a variety of options, including magnet schools, public charter schools, and other programs that help pay for private school tuition or for services for home-schooling parents.
The view from the White House has been to support them all.
In a February address to a joint session of Congress, President Donald Trump urged lawmakers to pass a school choice bill aimed at “disadvantaged youth.”
“These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them,” Trump said.
The president did not specifically mention students with disabilities. But DeVos, whose seeming unfamiliarity with special education policy prompted stiff opposition from some disability advocates before her confirmation, has said that students in special education need a full spectrum of options.
“In far too many cases, the parents of students with disabilities in the public schools are currently not satisfied with the services their children are receiving,” DeVos wrote before her confirmation in response to one of more than 100 questions from Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state. Murray is the top Democrat on the Senate education committee.
“But too often, the only way that parents can obtain what is best for their child is through legal recourse. This can take months and sometimes years,” DeVos wrote. “Children don’t have years to wait for courts to decide.”
As long as students with disabilities choose to remain within the public school system, however, they have an array of protections. For example, a student’s individualized educational program, or IEP, must be drafted with parent input. It’s also harder to suspend long-term or expel a student with a disability than a student without one. Except in certain serious cases, schools must go through a process to determine if a student’s misbehavior is a manifestation of his or her disability.
For students with disabilities enrolled in private school, those rights do not exist. Nor do students in private school retain an individual right to special education services, though local districts are supposed to provide “equitable services” to private school students within district boundaries.
The loss of protections, along with a lack of viable private school options, could be reasons why private schools are used less often by students with disabilities who are covered under the IDEA. While about 10 percent of all school-aged children are enrolled in private school, just over 1 percent of students with disabilities covered under that law are placed by their parents in private school. (Charter schools are public schools, but independently run.)
But Myers said that the private school her son used, through the support of Ohio’s Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program, offered her far more control than the public school system did.
“I found due process to be a hindrance to me. I didn’t have the money for it, I didn’t have the time for it,” Myers said. “At the public school, I was at their mercy.”
In contrast, at her son’s private school, she was able to negotiate an appropriate education for her son. And if she didn’t like what the school was doing, she had the option not to pay the school and to find another educational option, she said.
Myers eventually took a position at her son’s private school, Mansfield Christian School, and worked with several nearby districts that had families considering the Peterson scholarship. Her once-rocky relationship with her local school district has improved dramatically, she said, and she has strong partnerships with others.
“Sometimes, it takes that alternative method to fix the system as it is,” she said.
For McMurray, in Arizona, her three youngest children have an array of special needs that just weren’t being met in a private or public school setting, both of which she tried, she said.
For example, her daughter Alicia, 17, has Kabuki syndrome, a rare disorder that causes developmental delays. In public school, “their expectations were way too low. They would say, ‘Well, what do you want us to do?’ I want you to challenge her. You having her sit at a table, that means she’s shut up, quiet, and out of your way, but you’re a teacher—teach her.”
In private school, the class sizes were low, but her children were still failing tests.
The public dollars, along with the one-on-one attention she is able to provide them as a home-schooling parent, has helped the children blossom, she said.
“I think every parent in the United States of America should have this choice,” McMurray said. At the same time, she added, “it’s not for everybody. You have to be disciplined. You can’t just say, maybe I’ll teach them today but not tomorrow. You have to keep with it.”
But for some parents, home schooling is not an option—and neither is private school, even with a voucher.
Ambert, the Port St. Lucie parent, had a difficult experience with her local district. Her son’s school was not equipped to deal with his behavioral challenges, restraining him so often that he came home from school with bruises and was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He is now receiving instruction at home from the public school district.
Ambert is currently trying to decide what the best options are for her son. An expanded voucher program, she said, is not what she needs. What she wants is a public school option that can properly educate children like her son, who have autism but can learn at grade level.
Even if she could find a private school, “who’s not to say they’re not going to kick him out within two weeks? … I just want somewhere that I know that he can’t be asked to leave,” Ambert said.