On Romney’s Special Education Voucher Plan

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There’s an item from Gov. Romney’s education agenda that hasn’t gotten enough notice, and it’s not his seesaw on whether he’s going to cut education funding. 

(Review on Romney’s reversals on DOE funding: In April, the Governor told a Palm Beach audience at a closed-door fund-raiser, “The Department of Education: I will either consolidate with another agency, or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller. I’m not going to get rid of it entirely.” This past Wednesday at the debate, Gov. Romney said, “I’m not going to cut education funding. I don’t have any plan to cut education funding.”  (Fact-checkers at the Daily Beast concluded, “ While the Romney-approved House budget does not specify how cuts would affect particular federal programs, the White House’s own study  on the budget finds that it drops 200,000 children from Head Start as well as other early education programs, and gets rid of 38,000 teachers and aides at underprivileged schools as well as 27,000 special-education teachers.”)

Anyway, back to that little-noted item: special education vouchers, which the Gov. referred to at the debate on Wednesday night and was reported by EdWeek’s Politics K-12:

Romney touted his plan to turn Title I and special education funding into vouchers. “I want the kids getting federal dollars … I want them to go to the school of their choice. All federal funds would follow the child.”

Nifty, right? Instead of the feds funneling money to kids with disabilities based on some formula, each parent of a special needs kid will get a voucher to use at “the school of their choice.” What’s not to like?

Here’s a partial list:

  • The idea of “school of their choice” doesn’t work in the world of special education. It’s not just the parents’ choice; it’s the Child Study Team’s choice. Each child classified as eligible for special education services has a Child Study Team, which includes various specialists and, also, the parents. The CST creates an educational plan for the child. The CST reviews various placement options and come to a consensus about which school or classroom meets the child’s needs.  Parents don’t choose a placement independently. Or they only do if they can unilaterally swing the tuition at a private special education schools and then successfully sue the district for legal fees and back tuition, an option available to wealthy families. So, let’s be fair: wealthy families could use the voucher as a contribution towards future court costs. For less wealthy families, a special ed voucher is meaningless.
  • According to federal law, a child with disabilities must be placed in the “least restrictive environment.” This means that if the child is able to manage with various modifications in a traditional classroom, then the district and the CST must place that child there. If a district agrees to place a child in a more restrictive environment – i.e., in a private school for children with disabilities – without first confirming that a less restrictive placement is possible, then that district is violating federal law.
  • If a parent uses a voucher to place a child in a special ed private school, then the parent gives up his or her rights in disability law. That’s why special education advocacy groups advise parents never to use vouchers. (See this from Nirvi Shah, also at EdWeek.)
  • As Michele McNeil points out in the Politics K12 piece, the federal government is only responsible for about 10% of education costs. Ten percent of tuition to a private special ed school in NJ runs anyway from $5K – $10K. That leaves between $45,000 and $90,000 for the parents to cover on their own.

Gov. Romney’s “plan” for special education vouchers reveals a stunning lack of understanding about how children with disabilities are educated, at least among the 99%. Maybe someone on his team should point this out to him.

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  • kallikak, October 8, 2012 @ 7:01 pm Reply

    Question: are Romney and Christie on the same wavelength re: vouchers?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

  • NJ Left Behind, October 8, 2012 @ 10:49 pm Reply

    I'm not sure, but it's likely. Christie supported the original OSA bill, which was aimed at low-income kids in 13 districts, although 25% of the vouchers were reserved for kids already in parochial schools. A more moderate (and reasonable) version died in the Assembly, which included (I think) 5 cities and had all the vouchers reserved for kids currently in public schools. There was never any mention of special ed vouchers.

    Romney wants to turn over all US DOE stuff to the states, including IDEA and Title I monies. I've never heard Christie advocate that.

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