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Hurting special-needs students

New York Teacher

The six million students with disabilities in public schools around the country will suffer the most if Betsy DeVos expands for-profit charters and private-school vouchers nationwide.

To understand why, you have to understand how charter schools and vouchers operate. Private and charter schools are not bound to take all students, and the data shows that with the exception of schools whose mission it is to serve students with special needs, private schools and charter schools do not enroll students with disabilities in numbers equal to traditional public schools. 

Incredibly, some voucher programs require students with disabilities to forfeit their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the landmark civil rights legislation, if they accept a voucher for a private school.  That law guarantees basic protections to students with disabilities to ensure they are afforded a high-quality education with their peers. Under the law, students with disabilities must have access to free and appropriate services in a least-restrictive environment in a public school and parents must have a say in the process. 

Many states that adopted voucher systems drew heavily on the model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group backed by the Koch brothers and others who promote small government, free markets and privatization of public services. The focus is on ideology, not what best serves the students.  

During her Senate confirmation hearing, DeVos showed her ignorance of IDEA. At first, she said it would be up to states to decide whether or not to enforce it. When New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan, whose son has cerebral palsy, asked DeVos point blank if she was aware IDEA was a federal law, DeVos replied, “I may have confused it.”

Hassan told DeVos at the hearing that her voucher approach has “the potential for turning our public schools into warehouses for the most challenging kids with disabilities or other kinds of particular issues, or the kids whose parents can’t afford to make up the difference between the voucher and the cost of private school tuition.”

Betsy DeVos has made “school choice” her mantra for decades. But it’s clear that students with special needs will have far fewer choices in an education system that privileges charter schools and private-school voucher programs.