Facts About Vouchers

Exclusion and Mistreatment of Special-Needs Students

  • A 1998 report from the U.S. Department of Education found that 85% of large central city private schools it surveyed would “definitely or probably” not be willing to participate in a voucher program if they were required to accept “students with special needs such as learning disabilities, limited English proficiency, or low achievement.” Eighty-six percent of all religious schools expressed the same unwillingness to participate.2
  • This is corroborated by experiences with the two largest voucher programs. In Cleveland, where the law does not require private schools to accept handicapped students or provide special education programs,3 voucher school operator David Brennan candidly wrote to Governor Voinovich that: “Numerous scholarship (voucher) recipients were discouraged from taking their scholarships to private schools with the full knowledge that none of the existing private schools will be able to handle a seriously handicapped child.” An Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman commented that the voucher office didn’t expressly discourage applications, but did inform parents that needed services may be unavailable. “Many Catholic schools are not equipped to handle handicapped children or do not offer the services they need,” she said.4 This underscores a fundamental distinction: private schools, unlike public schools, are not required to educate every child.5
  • In Milwaukee, the Legislative Audit Bureau’s (LAB) February 2000 audit of the voucher program notes that seven schools—just 8 percent of program participants—reported that they offered special education services.6 The LAB audit noted that the services most likely available are lower cost services such as those designed for children with speech, language or learning disabilities.7 This prompted a Department of Public Instruction (DPI) response: “This means, in effect, that students with certain disabilities are denied a meaningful alternative to the Milwaukee Public Schools despite the intention of the Choice program to provide this opportunity to all eligible low-income children in the city.”8 The audit found 171 voucher students had been identified by the Milwaukee Public School district as having special education needs. “However,” it noted, “the total of special needs pupils in the program is not known because participating schools are not required to identify and report pupils in need of special services or their levels of need.”9
  • Many Milwaukee voucher schools are forthright regarding their inability to accommodate students with special needs.10 For example, Harambee Community School states that it is “unable to service children with a learning disability, physical disability and [who are] emotionally disturbed [sic].”11 Emmaus Lutheran states that it cannot serve “CD [Cognitive Disabilities], LD [Learning Disabilities], ED [Emotional Disturbances], [and s]ome types of physically handicapped students.”12 Gospel Lutheran “cannot serve wheelchair-bound students.”13 Blessed Sacrament writes: “We believe that students who are 2-3 years below grade level cannot be realistically brought up to grade level because we do not have a tutorial/learning center to accommodate their needs. Students who have severe emotional or behavioral problems need specific programs to assist them—we do not have a counselor or social worker.”14
  • In 2001, Wisconsin State Senator Russ Decker (D-Schofield) filed a motion that would have required all Milwaukee private schools participating in the voucher program “to comply with the same statutory requirements as public or charter schools with regard to including pupils with disabilities in statewide and local educational agency-wide assessments…” as well as comply with open records and anti-discrimination laws applicable to public schools. That motion failed to get out of the state’s Joint Finance Committee, which makes recommendations on the budget, on a party-line vote.15
  • Shortly after this motion failed to get out of Committee, State Senate Democrats incorporated an anti-discrimination bill authored by Rep. Christine Sinicki into their budget package. If passed, these provisions would have required all schools funded with taxpayer dollars to follow the state’s Open Records and Open Meetings Acts and to comply with statutes barring discrimination based on physical, mental, emotional or learning disability, race, gender, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and more.16 “There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from parents whose children were turned away from private schools because they required special education,” said Rep. Sinicki. Sinicki’s provisions were omitted from the final budget package that was passed by the legislature.17
  • In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ Plan voucher program has no requirement that students with special needs be accommodated in participating private schools.18 Under Florida’s McKay voucher program for students with disabilities, parents may opt to use a state voucher to place their child in a private school. Participating private schools, however, are not required to accommodate all applicants, nor are they required to hire teachers with special education qualifications of any kind, and—unlike private schools in the A+ Plan voucher program—these schools do not have to accept the state voucher as full payment of tuition, leaving no option for parents who are unable to pay the difference.19
  • Several schools accepting disabled students with McKay vouchers have come under recent fire for not providing disabled students with the critical services they need. For example, parents with disabled children enrolled in New Jerusalem Learning Center in Lakeland complained that the school did not provide adequate special education services such as speech and physical therapy.20 Similar complaints were voiced at other voucher schools, such as Bethel Metropolitan Christian School, which were established primarily to take advantage of the McKay voucher program.21
  • Severe allegations of financial and academic abuses at McKay voucher schools have also surfaced. For example, in 2001 Bethel Metropolitan Christian School was accused of misappropriating government funds, verbally and physically abusing students, hiring unqualified teachers, providing students with inadequate supplies including uniforms and textbooks, and providing students with inadequate special education services. The church pastor, who was also the school’s dean, and his wife who was headmistress, have both been fired for taking their own children out of the school and for daring to question the way the school was operated by AJC 2000 Management Team, an education management organization.22 In 2001, state records show that Bethel received $147,674 in state money for 85 disabled students, the first of four annual payments.23 In fact, the school may be receiving as much as $500,000 annually in tax dollars. But the school’s fired pastor Joaquin Marvin and wife Kimberly have raised questions about where this money was going as the school only pays its teachers $10.50 an hour.24
  • Similar concerns have been voiced about other McKay voucher schools. In 2002, the W.J. Redmond Christian Academy received a total of $424,000 from the state despite a plethora of complaints against the school, including incomplete student records, a failed health inspection, lack of financial viability, lack of certified teachers and administrators, five different mailing addresses (including an empty church hall and a motel room), and disconnected phone numbers.25
  • Under existing state criteria, the McKay voucher program has no guidelines or provisions to hold schools accountable to the public and ensuring that special needs students are getting a quality education. As a result, it is impossible to know whether students with disabilities are getting a better education in private schools than they would in public ones.
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