Unfortunately, parents who choose to use vouchers for their special needs kids must waive their rights to federal resources provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) although consideration was given to including a federal voucher program when the law was reauthorized in 2004. But some parents opt out of public special education anyway, suggesting that IDEA is not tailor made for every student.
In my state of Georgia, Senate Bill 10 is up for consideration, which will provide vouchers for parents of special education children if they feel they must, for their child's benefit, move him or her to another school. Such flexibility is sorely needed in a state where less than a third of special education students graduate.
Will a voucher program such as the one proposed in Georgia destroy public education as we know it? Not according to the evidence: Florida's McKay Scholarship Program for special education students has only helped the needy and has hurt no one. Among other benefits, the program allows parents, when necessary, to move their special needs children out of situations in which they are repeatedly physically assaulted because of their disability. As much as we might not like to admit it, such abuse is all-to-common.
In Utah, students with disabilities have since 2005 been able to receive up to $5,700 each for private school tuition. In the 2005-06 school year, 138 students participated. So far the state hasn't collapsed into the Great Salt Lake.
But damn the facts. Let the hyperbole begin.
The majority of those who oppose the voucher program in Georgia are the predictable alphabet soup groups, including the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the GAE, and the "alternative" to the GAE, PAGE. Some will be troubled to learn that opponents of vouchers nation-wide now include the PTA, though their propaganda is more muted than that of, say, the NEA. That's understandable given that a Parent-Teacher organization finds itself in a contradiction when it opposes greater choice for those heroic parents who really need it.
Parents of special needs children often fight a frustration that leads to tears. Those tears come, not always because of the very difficult task that life has handed them, but because they lack the leverage to get the job done. The reason SB 10 is so important for special needs students is that it increases their parents' bargaining power. They have an option when it is critically needed. It is very difficult to enforce your child's rights if you have no options. Even if only 5% of special needs children use the scholarship, the other 95% will in a better position to insure their child a quality education.
Henry T. Edmondson III is Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at the Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia.
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