Proponents of school vouchers never give up. Even though the CHOICE Act has been unsuccessfully introduced in Congress several times already, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) has once again introduced the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act into the new session of Congress. Co-sponsors are Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), John Cornyn (R-TX), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Orrin Hatch(R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL). The CHOICE Act would turn the Washington, D.C. voucher program into a much wider, federally funded school voucher program, whose implications are especially serious for children with special needs, the students whose rights are protected in public schools by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The CHOICE bill's summary states, "The authorization of a parent to exercise this option fulfills the State's obligation. . . a selected school accepting such funds shall not be required to carry out any of the requirements of this title with respect to such child." In other words, parents who take a voucher to a private school give up the right—protected by the IDEA—to services specifically designed to address their child's needs including the guarantee that teachers will be specially trained and certified.
Advocates for parental choice persist in believing that parents who know best will discover the perfect private school to serve their children. The problem is that when private schools advertise, they are not always entirely honest about exactly what services they will provide for children with special needs. Too often parents and children discover the hard way that what the school provides is not what was promised.
When an earlier version of this bill was introduced in Congress, the National Coalition for Public Education warned:
"Students who leave the public schools with a voucher are considered to be parentally placed in the private school, and thus forfeit many of the protections provided to students under IDEA. Students accepting vouchers would not necessarily receive all of the services listed on their individualized education plans (IEPs) that they are currently receiving in their public school.
"One goal of IDEA is to bring students with disabilities into the public school system, provide them access to the general education curriculum, and protect against the history of exclusion of students with disabilities. . . Vouchers, in contrast, place students in private schools that do not have to follow the same inclusionary practices as public schools, allowing students with disabilities to be isolated from their non-disabled peers."
A policy brief from the National Education Association provides a clear summary of the protections that are provided by IDEA in public schools but that would be lost if the CHOICE Act were passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama:
"The basic premise of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is that all children with disabilities have a federally protected civil right to a free and appropriate public education that meets their specific needs in the least restrictive environment possible.
"IDEA requires that each child identified as having special needs be provided an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that describes the special education and related services that child will need, as well as the supports and resources that will be needed by the school personnel who will be implementing the IEP. Parents must be included in the team convened to develop, evaluate, and modify the IEPs. Services identified in the IEP must be provided at no charge to the student, parent, or guardian. States and school systems may not refuse to provide services based on expense or on the grounds that a child's disability is too severe to benefit from special services. . . Children with special needs whose behavior could result in disciplinary action are entitled to a hearing to determine whether their behavior is based on inadequately treated needs, and remain entitled to appropriate education and services while suspended or expelled. IEPs must be reviewed periodically and revised as needed, and are enforceable by law. Where placement in a private school is needed to fulfill the terms of a child's IEP, IDEA authorizes such enrollment. In those cases, the district contracts with the private school to provide the child's education and all special services and accommodations set forth in the IEP at the district's expense. Children and parents have all the rights that they would have if the child were served by a public school, including due process in the event the IEP is not fully implemented.
"But when parents accept a voucher. . . none of these protections apply. The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights confirms that parents who use a voucher waive their rights and their children's rights under IDEA. Private schools may decline to accept students based on their disability, could decline to abide by the IEPs of students they do accept, or could segregate children with needs from other children."
Private schools are also free to cut back on expensive services without any protection of the rights of children who require teachers with particular specialties or expensive educational supports.
Because public schools are governed and regulated by law, public schools remain the institutions most likely to meet the needs and protect the rights of all students, and especially students with special needs.