Free and Appropriate Choice
As many people know the new U.S. Secretary for Education is not a big fan of public schools and is a huge fan of school choice. She has never attended a public school of any kind; she just doesn't like them.
Now the issue of whether families of children with disabilities should have vouchers that presumably would allow them to attend the school of their parents’ choice is being debated.
First some background. At the present time federal funds pay for approximately 16% of the cost of educating children with disabilities. Back in 1975 when the Education of all Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was passed, the law authorized a federal contribution up to 40%. The federal contribution has only been appropriated at about 16%.
This is how the system currently works. The feds dole out the funds based on the number of children in a state who are of school age. That is ALL children in the state, not just the ones with disabilities. There is a differential for states with a large number of children in poverty. Special education is more expensive than general education. So, it stands to fiscal policy that states with fewer kids identified as having special needs and needing special education will be able to pocket more of the money that is distributed based on the total number of students. Some states, Texas for one, have capped the percentage of children who can be identified as disabled. That issue is presently in the courts.
The IDEA money (IDEA is the successor to EHA) works out to about $1,800 per child with disabilities in the various states.
It has been suggested that the feds would provide that amount of money to the states based on a child count of children with disabilities. In that scenario, states that identified more kids with disabilities would get more money. BUT, once the child is identified as having a disability and needing special education, the states would need to provide that education. The cost to do that would greatly exceed the additional $1,800.
From the point-of-view of the new Secretary of Education, families would be given that money to use to buy a program for their child at any place of their choosing. There are several problems with this approach. First of all, $1,800 is simply not enough money to buy any program, let alone one that meets the needs of a child with disabilities. If it were enough, the public schools would be all over it. So, what you really have is a subsidy to parents who can already afford the private placement.
Another issue is what kind of program will parents buy. If they buy a plain private school, one that does not offer special programming, they will be giving up their child’s right to due process, an IEP and all the special services provided in the law. If parents have the funds to buy a private special ed program, $1,800 will barely scratch the surface.
This approach has the potential to be a lose-lose situation. Public schools will lose the value of the confluence of funds that together can do more than one $1,800 payment. They will lose significant resources. There is no guarantee that children will be better served. Many will give up their rights under IDEA. Other kids who live in rural areas won’t even have a private school option. Most likely more children with disabilities will be short-changed on the guarantee of a free, appropriate public education. Who gains in all this? Wealthy parents who were going to send their kids to a special education private school anyway, will have a coupon (voucher) to reduce the cost.
For the majority of families this is no choice at all. Under which cup did the street corner barker hide the ball? Keep focused because the trick is to deflect your attention elsewhere while you are fooled into thinking you are a winner.