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Rebecca Ullrich's picture

In the weeks leading up to the vote confirming Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, the switchboards on Capitol Hill were overwhelmed with calls. Hill staff noted that some senators received 25,000 or more letters and emails about DeVos, most in opposition to her nomination. Concerned parents, teachers, and advocates like you recognized that a billionaire philanthropist who spent her career dismantling public education is unfit to lead our nation’s schools.

Your advocacy efforts mattered. In what was initially expected to be an easy confirmation, Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote on a cabinet nominee for the first time in history. DeVos may be our new secretary of education, but constituents’ engagement over the last several weeks sent a clear message about the value Americans place on public schools.

Moving forward, protecting students from DeVos’s harmful policy priorities will require the same level of energy and enthusiasm.

With Trump and DeVos now influencing the education of students nationwide, we can expect to see a federal proposal to incentivize and fund school choice voucher programs. These programs – already in place in 16 states and Washington, D.C. – provide families with a fixed amount of public funding to put toward tuition at the school of their choice, typically a private school. But given DeVos’s limited knowledge of federal education policy – which she repeatedly demonstrated throughout her confirmation process – it is unlikely that this proposal will strike the important balance of promoting school choice while protecting students’ rights.

This has significant implications for students with disabilities and their families. During her confirmation hearing, DeVos admitted she “may have confused” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) being federal law. In public schools, IDEA and other federal civil rights and education laws guarantee students with disabilities the right to a quality inclusive education and critical support services at no cost to their families. Schools cannot engage in exclusionary disciplinary practices with students with disabilities, and families have legal recourse if they are unsatisfied with their child’s education program or setting.

Voucher programs, on the other hand, directly undermine these rights and protections for students with disabilities and their families. In short, DeVos’s “confusion” around IDEA and other federal laws that protect students with disabilities means she likely doesn’t appreciate what parents and students are giving up by accepting a private school voucher.

Here are three things parents of children with special needs need to know about the voucher programs DeVos is advocating for:

1. Parents might be asked to sign away their rights to services for their children.

Many voucher programs do not guarantee that students will have access to support services – such as occupational therapy or one-on-one instruction – in their private schools, and may require parents to sign away their rights under IDEA in order to receive a voucher.

For example, a parent in Georgia who accepts a voucher through the Special Needs Scholarship Program has legally refused “parental consent to services under IDEA.” Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in Wisconsin doesn’t require private schools to offer special education services to students beyond what can be provided with “minor adjustments” to their educational program. As a result, if parents are unsatisfied with the education provided in the private school, they have no legal recourse because they’ve given up their right to a free and appropriate public education.


2Parents could face a hefty tuition bill because vouchers don’t always cover the cost of private education.

Most vouchers don’t cover the full cost of private school tuition. Parents are then responsible for paying the difference. If private schools are willing to provide supplemental services, parents may be required to foot that bill as well—services that would otherwise be offered at no cost in a public school setting. These potential out-of-pocket expenses are often not disclosed when parents sign up for the voucher and enroll their child in private school.


3. Private schools can refuse to serve children with special needs at any time.

Private schools can pick and choose the students they want to enroll. While they cannot discriminate against children with disabilities, private schools also are not required to accept students whose needs would require a significant adjustment to their educational program. This means they can deny admission to students with severe special needs, or ask students to leave midyear due to behaviors or challenges related to their disabilities. In these circumstances, families have to scramble to find another option for their child with little or no notice – and the voucher dollars will not necessarily follow the student to a new school. Again, families have no legal recourse because they’ve given up their rights.

Proponents of school choice tend to say that voucher programs “empower parents” to select the placement that is right for their children. However, parents don’t have real choice if opportunities aren’t available without forfeiting their rights afforded by federal law.

Parents, teachers, and advocates must be ready to oppose any school choice legislation that disregards the federal protections guaranteed to students with disabilities and their families. These programsundercut the progress of the past few decades by requiring parents to sign away hard-fought rights, and denying students the supports they need to succeed.


All of our students – with and without disabilities – deserve access to a free and appropriate education, free from discrimination.


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