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NEA 'IDEA Brief' #4

NEA members ask:

Why are vouchers described as a
'false promise' for students with disabilities?

Will vouchers expand parents' educational options?

No. Vouchers will not expand parental options. A voucher does not guarantee any student admission to the school of their "choice."  Private schools can discriminate and reject students for many reasons –- religion, gender, behavior, testing deficiencies, and even disability. Furthermore, vouchers may not cover the total cost to attend a private school, further limiting parents' options.

Are the rights of children in voucher programs safeguarded?

No. A voucher program could strip a child with disabilities of legal protection, and leave that child’s parents without any legal recourse against the private school. In public school programs, children are entitled to due process, education in alternative settings, and special services.

According to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, parents who accept a voucher give up their rights to a "free appropriate public education" when they opt to send their child to a private school under a voucher program.1 

Private schools are not required to comply with IDEA and neither the parents nor the public have recourse to challenge a denial of services or failure to accommodate a child with disabilities in the private school setting. Without the requirement that participating private schools develop and implement Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) according to the terms of IDEA, a major parent involvement provision is lost.

 Furthermore, if they become the subject of disciplinary proceedings, students with disabilities may be summarily expelled from voucher schools. Finally, private schools participating in Florida’s McKay voucher program may maintain faith-based curricula, and may compel students to pray, worship, or profess ideological beliefs.

Some students with disabilities attend private schools now at public expense.  Don’t vouchers work the same way?

No. The decision-making process and the rights those students have are very different than under a voucher program. IDEA allows local districts to place children with disabilities in private schools if the local school district is unable to meet the child’s IEP. In those cases, the child receives a special education program and related services at the private school at no cost to the parents.

This placement decision is the collective decision of the child’s IEP team, which includes educators, related services providers, and the child's parents. As a result of this agreement, the child and his/her parents have all the rights that they would have if the child were served by a public school.

Is there greater accountability with vouchers?

No. There are virtually no accountability requirements for private schools accepting vouchers. One of the foundations of the so-called No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was that the federal government would hold states and localities accountable.

Vouchers undermine this cornerstone of education reform by diverting public funds to private schools that are not held to any of NCLB's accountability measures. Private schools accepting vouchers are not required to administer the same annual assessments that public schools give, publicly report on student achievement, give parents individual, descriptive reports on their children's yearly progress toward State proficiency in reading and math, or employ highly qualified teachers -– all requirements public schools must meet.

Private schools receiving vouchers are not held fiscally accountable to the taxpayers who fund the vouchers. Furthermore, if the private schools fail to provide an appropriate education or promised special services, the only recourse parents have is to try to transfer their child to another school -– wreaking havoc with a student's education while doing nothing to improve the education of special needs students.

In addition, public schools are required to hold open meetings and make information public, such as test scores, dropout rates, and more. Private schools are not. This lack of oversight has contributed to charges of fraud, waste, and abuse in publicly funded voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee. In Florida, some schools that accepted vouchers are facing allegations of physical abuse, falsifying voucher applications, and failing to provide education and services.2

Will vouchers help low-income families?

No. Voucher programs won't help low-income families. Typically, voucher programs don't determine eligibility by family income levels. Vouchers are often given to wealthier families for private school tuition while keeping it out of reach for working class families.

Voucher programs entitle parents to no more than a specific cash amount that is applied to their child's education. Participating private schools could charge parents amounts in excess of the value of the voucher -– as the Florida McKay voucher program does. And, parents could also be held financially responsible for any services they request for their child.3

Do vouchers improve student achievement?

No. Vouchers do not improve student achievement. Extensive research on voucher programs has been conducted, and it has yielded no solid evidence that private school vouchers improve student achievement.4 Since they lack scientific, research-based evidence of effectiveness, funding vouchers is counter to the rigor demanded by current measures of student achievement.

What I can do about  it?

Contact your members of Congress and urge them to oppose voucher proposals for students with disabilities. You cand send these messages from the IDEA section of our Legislative Action Center.

To find out more about IDEA reauthorization:

Visit our Special Education/IDEA section at this Web site to learn more about the issue and NEA's priorities for reauthorization of IDEA.

1. Explanatory letter to Pinellas (FL) School Board attorney John Bowen. (March 30, 2001).

2. DREDF and People for the American Way. (2003). Jeopardizing a Legacy: A Closer Look at IDEA and Florida’s Disability Voucher Program. Washington, DC: Authors.

3. Rotherham, A. & Mead, S. (2003). Think Twice: Special Education vouchers Are Not All Right. Washington, DC: Progressive Policy Institute.

4. Metcalf, K., & Tait, P. (1999). Free Market Policies and Public Education: What is the Cost of Choice? Retrieved March 17, 2004 from: