School Voucher Programs Should Be Clear About Disability Rights, Report Says

Dec 4, 2017
Originally published on December 5, 2017 9:12 pm

School voucher programs need (at least) three key ingredients:

1. Multiple schools (don't roll your eyes, city dwellers, this one's a brick wall for many rural parents).

2. A system that makes private schools affordable for low-income parents. Choice isn't choice if it's only the rich who get to choose.

3. And transparency, so that a child's caregiver can review the options and make an informed choice.

This story is about that last ingredient.

A new report from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office says many of the nation's voucher programs — and the private schools that participate in them — aren't giving parents the information they need to make an informed choice, especially parents of kids with disabilities.

Federal law says that students with disabilities are entitled to certain protections when they attend public school (more on those in a minute). If parents use a publicly funded voucher to enroll their child in a private school, they leave many of those protections behind. Some families do this knowingly, trading federal guarantees in a cash-strapped public school for the hope of something better on the private market.

But often, parents don't understand when they've left the safety of the law behind, and, according to the GAO, many voucher programs don't tell them.

"Congress should consider requiring that states notify parents/guardians of changes in students' federal special education rights when a student with a disability is moved from public to private school by their parent."

That's the GAO's key recommendation after reviewing the nation's 23 private-school voucher programs and four education savings account programs.

This may sound tedious: a clarion call for more ... notification? But for students with disabilities and their parents, it's a big deal. Here's why.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also known as IDEA, offers important protections to some 6.5 million children. At the top of the list: a guaranteed free and appropriate public education (FAPE), including access to necessary special education services and certified teachers. Another guarantee: that the education take place in the "least restrictive environment" possible.

That means schools have to balance giving students the special services they need while, whenever possible, giving them access to general education classes. The law also includes some safeguards to make sure students aren't disciplined inappropriately for disruptive behavior related to their disability.

These protections follow a child if, for example, a school district decides she would be better off in a private school, perhaps because it specializes in serving students with her disability. But, when it's the student's caregiver who initiates the move, the right to FAPE evaporates. And many parents simply don't know that. One reason: Many private schools don't tell them.

The Government Accountability Office reviewed a nationally representative sample of the websites of more than 300 voucher-accepting private schools.

"We estimate that no more than half of all schools participating in any type of voucher program provide information on their websites about students with disabilities," says Jackie Nowicki, director of K-12 education at the GAO.

Nowicki and her team also reviewed the information provided to parents directly by the choice programs, including 15 that are designed specifically for students with disabilities. Roughly three-quarters of students enrolled in those 15 programs were given no information on how their rights would change upon leaving public school. Another 10 percent of students were enrolled in disability choice programs that provided parents with inaccurate information.

"You know, we may all be presented with a set of facts and make different decisions based on those facts," Nowicki says, but "being able to make good decisions is predicated on having good information."

As part of its review, the GAO also interviewed 17 families of students with disabilities. Some said they were happy with their child's private school experience and considered it an improvement over what they'd gotten in public school.

But several families said they wished they had known that a private school could charge them for special education services. And one family was, according to the report, "surprised to learn that teachers providing special education services to their child [in private school] were not trained to provide those services." Granted, 17 families is a small sample size, but NPR has also heard these concerns from parents during previous reporting.

The Education Department points out that it doesn't have the authority to require states to be more transparent — to tell parents about the rights they're giving up when they leave a public school. That's why the GAO recommends that Congress consider stepping in and writing a new requirement.

The GAO's message is not: Choice is bad.

It's more like: Parents deserve to know what they're choosing.

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We're going to hear now about a new report on school vouchers and students with disabilities. Some states let parents use public funds to enroll their children in private schools. For students with disabilities, leaving public schools can mean leaving behind important federal protections. But many parents don't know this, one reason voucher programs and private schools often don't tell them. Here's Cory Turner with the NPR Ed team.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: In public schools, federal law makes a few promises to the parents of kids with disabilities. And here's the big one - their children are guaranteed what's called free and appropriate public education, or FAPE. Now, that includes access to special services and trained teachers. Whenever possible, public schools also have to balance those services with access to general education classes. But if parents use a voucher to voluntarily move their child to a private school, well, that right to FAPE, it evaporates.

JACKIE NOWICKI: Because the law applies to public schools. It - that's why it's called a free and appropriate public education.

TURNER: Jackie Nowicki is director of K-12 education at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which released this latest report on the nation's voucher programs. It's a problem, she says, that some parents don't realize they're giving up important rights when they use a voucher. And the GAO found that many private voucher schools don't bother to tell them that. Nowicki and her team reviewed a nationally representative sample of more than 300 private school websites.

NOWICKI: We estimate that no more than half of all schools participating in any type of voucher program provide information on their websites about students with disabilities.

TURNER: The GAO also looked at the information parents get directly from voucher programs. Some, according to the review, do a good job of walking parents through the basics. But many don't, even programs designed specifically for kids with disabilities. In fact, Nowicki says 83 percent of kids enrolled in these disability-focused voucher programs were either told nothing or given inaccurate information about how their rights would change in a private school. The GAO also interviewed a very small sample of families. Some said they're happy in private schools and that their kids are getting better care, but others admitted being surprised that their child's voucher school could charge them for special services, that some teachers weren't well trained, or that some schools couldn't accommodate their child's disability.

NOWICKI: You know, we may all be presented with kind of a set of facts and make different decisions based on those facts. But I think being able to make good decisions is predicated on having good, clear, consistent, accurate information on which to base those decisions.

TURNER: That's why at the end of this new report the GAO recommends that Congress consider requiring states to be clearer with parents about their rights. The GAO's message is not that school choice is inherently bad, but that parents deserve to know what they're choosing. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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