Parents need better info on private school choice for special needs children

Travis Pillow

Scholarship programs give parents with special needs children a choice. They can remain in public schools, negotiate an Individualized Education Program with their district, and fight to make sure the district carries out that plan, as federal law requires. Or they can accept a scholarship and move their child into a private school or another educational setting, but lose the ability to enforce that federal law.

Last week, a report by the federal Government Accountability Office found the vast majority of parents aren’t informed about the tradeoffs when they apply for scholarships.

According to GAO’s review of information provided by private school choice programs, and as confirmed by program officials, in school year 2016-17, 83 percent of students enrolled in a program designed specifically for students with disabilities were in a program that provided either no information about changes in IDEA rights or provided information that [the U.S. Education Department] confirmed contained inaccuracies about these changes.

The watchdog agency recommended Congress require states and organizations that administer school choice programs to inform parents how their rights change if they leave a public school to accept a scholarship. It noted the Education Department largely agreed with its conclusions.

This dovetails with arguments some school choice advocates have made. In an article published by the Federalist Society, Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute and Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice argued educational choice strengthens parents’ rights. That’s because scholarships give parents more options if they feel school districts aren’t meeting their children’s needs.

But while they rebutted many arguments by voucher critics, they also wrote that parents need to be able to make informed decisions.

Large proportions of participating parents report high rates of satisfaction with the programs, and particularly with [Florida’s] McKay Scholarship Program, which suggests that uninformed decisionmaking is not widespread. However, since informed decision-making by parents is key to functional private school choice programs, it is vital that parents understand their rights within them and choose to participate accordingly. States and program officers should do their utmost to help parents make informed choices, as this issue does not deal directly with the structure of choice programs, but with their efficient function.

In response to the GAO report, Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog and helps administer the nation’s largest education savings account program for children with special needs, is taking steps to improve the disclosures it provides parents when they apply for scholarships. The organization periodically convenes a council of scholarship parents to discuss ways to improve the program.

“The GAO is correct that parents with special needs students need to understand the ramifications of the educational decisions they make,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up, which helps administer the Florida’s Gardiner Scholarships. “We’ll be working with our parent advisory group to improve our communications to Gardiner parents to make sure they are fully aware of the tradeoffs.”

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