LaShawn Williamson is the mother of seven children, four of whom have disabilities. Wanting the best education for her children, Williamson enrolled them all in in a Milwaukee-area private school using vouchers and even began working at the school as a secretary so that she could be close to them.
Before enrolling her children, Williamson says the school informed her that they would still be able to receive special education services, including Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), which they are federally entitled to by law at public schools. Likewise, she was assured that the school had special education teachers.
Within months, however, Williamson soon learned that these were broken promises. The school eventually informed her, she says, that it did not have to abide by her children’s IEPs; she told Rewire that her children’s teachers were not even trained in teaching students with disabilities.
“They did the same thing over, and over, and over. They never challenged the kids. The stuff that they were teaching [my children] they already knew, so there was never a place for them to advance,” Williamson told Rewire.
Williamson ultimately moved her children back to public schools, which she believes are better equipped to teach them. Remarking on her difficult experience with the process, Williamson told Rewire, “I sacrificed so much making sure that my kids have the best education.”
Unfortunately, Williamson’s experience is not unique. An estimated 13 percent of all public school student receive special education, and 35 percent of those have a specific learning disability. And despite the strong federal legal protections afforded to students with disabilities, these rights are questionable when parents choose to have their children attend a private school. Even as the Trump administration pushes for more federal funding to support private schools, many parents of children with disabilities remain unaware of the difficulties their children may be facing by attending them.
Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made clear that she believes children and their families deserve more “choice,” which allows parents to choose whether their child attends various types of public schools or private schools. Typically, public schools receive government funding on a per-student basis. Under a voucher program, families receive that funding (“vouchers”), which can be spent at any private school the parents choose for their children, often including religious schools.
Williamson told Rewire that she believes school voucher programs target large families because programs’ funding is based on the number of students they enroll. “I was young and did not know what I was getting myself into. I fell for it,” she said.
Still, during her confirmation before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, DeVos proclaimed that most parents of children with disabilities who utilize school vouchers to attend private schools are “very, very pleased” with their experiences. Notably, during that same hearing, DeVos struggled to answer basic questions about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its application to private schools.
The administration’s push for increased school vouchers marks a stark departure from federal special education policy. The IDEA, originally titled the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, was signed into law in 1975. The overarching goal of IDEA is simple: Provide students with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students without disabilities. Accordingly, the IDEA guarantees students with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education. Moreover, students with disabilities must be educated in the least restrictive environment possible, generally meaning alongside their non-disabled peers. Further, schools must follow students’ IEPs, which details what services and supports must be provided, and documents the student’s goals and progress made toward those goals.
However, as Williamson’s experience highlights, the IDEA does not apply to private schools, which means they do not have to comply with an IEP. Moreover, religious schools do not have to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, two federal laws that prohibit disability-based discrimination and require the provision of reasonable accommodations. In general, even non-religious private schools have far fewer obligations under the ADA and Section 504 than public schools.
The absence of legal protections for students with disabilities who attend private schools is concerning for Eve Hill, an attorney at Brown, Goldstein, and Levy in Baltimore. Hill, who has worked as a disability rights lawyer for 24 years, told Rewire, “Current voucher systems and proposals break the chain of responsibility and authority for providing special education under the IDEA and Section 504 and accommodations under the ADA.”
“Without an express means of carrying those rights into the private voucher schools, children with disabilities placed in private school … will have no right to special education,” Hill explained.
Parents, however, may not be kept in the loop. A November report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that most voucher programs, and the private schools that participate in them, do not provide families with enough information about their rights at school to make an informed decision. Accordingly, the GAO recommends that Congress require “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.”
The limited information and the increase in school voucher programs disproportionately affects certain communities more than others. Rebecca Cokley, a senior fellow for disability policy at the Center for American Progress, told Rewire, “The significant problem with vouchers [is] that families, particularly in low-income communities, are sold … them as a golden ticket out of struggling neighborhood schools. If those families include students with disabilities, they are rarely, if ever, informed that they are surrendering their rights under IDEA and even some of their rights under Section 504. Parents and families are not being given the right to make an informed choice.”
“The data tells us that students of color and their families are disproportionately impacted by these programs,” Cokley continued.
Meanwhile, special education in public schools is grossly underfunded: Although the IDEA calls for 40 percent of special education to be funded by the federal government, it has never come close to meeting that goal. In 2016, for example, the federal government covered only 16 percent of special education expenditures. As I wrote previously for Rewire, “Redirecting dollars from public to private schools weakens public education and gives taxpayer support to schools that don’t have the same obligation to serve all students, including those with disabilities.”
“School choice would not be necessary for any students if we invested in our public schools adequately,” Hill told Rewire.
Williamson is also worried that some families may lack the resources to fully understand the consequences of enrolling children with disabilities in private schools. “They’re opening up so many [school voucher programs] and a lot of parents have their own burdens going on, trying to work and trusting these schools,” she said. “But [they don’t know] it’s only setting their kids up for failure.”