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Will Private Schools Want Our Kids?
By guest editor Barbara Day StarrPoints

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers are constitutional -- even when used to pay tuition at schools with religious affiliations. Last week, a Tallahassee judge ruled against the use of school vouchers altogether, saying they violated Florida's state constitution. In this week's StarrPoints, guest editor Barbara Day says that lawmakers focusing on issues of constitutionality may be missing the point. "A greater area of concern exists," Day points out. "How will vouchers impact the needs of students with disabilities?"


Barbara Day
Barbara Day
Headlines from the June 27, 2002, landmark Supreme Court decision announce that taxpayer funds can be used to help pay for private school tuition. Since 96 percent of the private schools addressed by the court in the Cleveland City School District decision have religious affiliations, the truer implication of the ruling was not about vouchers, but about the constitutionality of using vouchers to help pay tuition at religious schools. The point of law debated is something called the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In the end, the Court's decision held that the Establishment Clause was not violated for two reasons:
  1. Parents would still be afforded a choice between religious and nonreligious private schools in the Cleveland District.
  2. Parents, not the government, will write the checks to the religious schools.
Do I sense slight of hand here? So what if parents write the check; we know where the money is coming from. Ultimately, the checks represent tax money that will no longer go to public schools.

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In today's StarrPoints, guest editor Barbara Day asks, "Will vouchers leave special education students behind?" What do you think? Will private schools be willing -- or able -- to take on the extra challenges posed by special education students? Share your thoughts on a StarrPoints message board.


Guest editor Barbara Day has worked as a registered nurse in Colorado schools and as a Continuous Improvement Plan IEP Monitor for the state of Colorado. In that capacity, she assisted school districts in measuring how well they were achieving the goal of IDEA compliance and the state in measuring its success in dealing with special education compliance issues. Day is currently the guide for Special Education for About.com.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS ... LAND OF IDEA, HOME OF FAPE

Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 allocates federal funding for children with disabilities, with the stipulation that all students in the school district receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). In the past, private schools have been able to deny admission to students with disabilities because private schools do not receive Part B funds, and therefore, do not need to provide FAPE. Public schools, on the other hand, have to deal with all types of learners -- an issue that is rarely mentioned when the success of public education is questioned.

So, although addressing the relationship between vouchers and the Establishment Clause issue is important, a greater area of concern exists: How will court decisions regarding vouchers impact the needs of students with disabilities? To be fair, the Supreme Court Justices were not called upon to consider that point. It must, however, now become the job of parents and educators to think through the process and advocate for the needs of students with disabilities.

At this point, it is still too early to know how recent voucher rulings will translate across the nation. But soon, I'm afraid, as the issue of vouchers accelerates, legislators and lobbyists will intensify the call for movement away from public school support. Now, therefore, is the time to begin to look behind the tantalizing promise of "voucher euphoria" and try to visualize what vouchers will mean for students who are physically and/or academically challenged.

STRINGS ATTACHED?

President George W. Bush summarized the recent Supreme Court ruling on vouchers by saying, "The Supreme Court has offered the hope of an excellent education to all parents and children throughout our country. This decision clears the way for other innovative school choice programs, so that no child in America will be left behind."

Before I can begin to accept that statement, however, I have some questions for President Bush -- questions related to vouchers and their ability to ensure support for special education programs. Those questions follow:

  • Will all students -- including special education students -- have equal access to private school admission?
  • Will private schools be allowed to discriminate against kids who have learning and/or physical disabilities?
  • Will private schools that accept students with disabilities be able to pay all the extra costs for educating those students themselves or will they need government dollars?
  • Will private schools be eligible for Part B and C funding from IDEA? If so, how will that affect IDEA's requirements regarding FAPE?
  • Will private schools requesting funding follow all the regulations set forth in IDEA (as public schools must do) or will they simply exclude students with disabilities ... or students with costly disabilities?
  • How will private schools deal with the transportation needs of some students with disabilities?
  • Will private school teachers be trained to teach special education students?
  • Will underpaid private school teachers get raises?
  • How will private schools be held accountable? Will standardized testing also be mandated for private schools?
  • Will private school teachers be required to be certified?
  • What will happen when a private school has to put in an elevator to their third floor ... or hire Spanish/Russian-speaking teachers ... or hire psychologists to handle emotional disorders ... or ...?
  • What happens if a private school has more applicants than available enrollment capability?
  • Will replacement funds be granted to public schools as their student-based monetary support decreases?
  • Will private schools be allowed to increase their base tuition rates once they realize parents will have more money to spend at their school?

I fear that if the above questions are ignored, this country's special education students -- all 6 million of them -- once again will be left behind.