Trump champions a voucher program that asks disabled students to waive rights

Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program doesn’t provide any real accountability to schools.

President Donald Trump climbs the stairs to board Air Force One before his departure from at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, March 3, 2017, en route to Florida. CREDIT: AP/ Alex Brandon
President Donald Trump climbs the stairs to board Air Force One before his departure from at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, March 3, 2017, en route to Florida. CREDIT: AP/ Alex Brandon

President Donald Trump plans to visit a Catholic school on Friday to promote the expansion of private school vouchers, even though the state’s voucher program asks students with disabilities to sign away their rights.

Florida’s tax credit McKay Scholarship Program, started under former Gov. Jeb Bush (R), provides vouchers for students with disabilities to attend schools like St. Andrews, the site of Trump’s visit. But it also asks students with disabilities to waive their rights under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that protects students with disabilities.

Florida also has a tax credit scholarship program for low-income students and education savings accounts for students with disabilities as part of its school choice model.

During his campaign, President Trump promoted the expansion of school voucher programs using federal dollars. But many of these programs ask students to waive all of their rights under IDEA, including those programs targeted toward students with disabilities. The accountability standards for these schools are often insufficient, making it difficult to ensure students with disabilities are being properly served by the private schools they attend.

Education Secretary Betsy Devos — who said during her confirmation hearing that she was “confused” on the requirements of IDEA — has also indicated she will do little to protect the rights of disabled students. DeVos has called Florida’s voucher program a “good and growing example of what can happen when you have a robust array of [school] choices.”

IDEA requires that schools identify and provide services to preschool-age children with disabilities; that students with disabilities have an individualized education plan (IEP) to make sure a school meets the needs of that particular child; and that students with disabilities are not isolated from classrooms where students without disabilities are being educated. It also protects students from being disciplined as a result of their disability.

Florida — like Louisiana, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Utah — has special education voucher programs, but most of them ask students to sign away their protections under IDEA. The schools benefiting from the Florida program also aren’t required to report on student achievement or program quality, which makes it difficult to assess how students with disabilities are benefiting from this voucher system — or being harmed by it. Most voucher programs for students with disabilities do not require that schools participate in standardized state assessments, or that schools report those results.

The Florida Department of Education page that is supposed to answer questions about these vouchers doesn’t make it easy for a parent to find information on the scholarship, because it uses jargon parents may be unfamiliar with. The voucher program offers different voucher amounts depending on what a student’s disability is; a child is assigned a funding level, known as a “matrix of services.” This website tells parents to go to a link to find their “child’s matrix number” for a 504 funding plan. This abstruse website is a good example of why some education experts say that vouchers work better for parents who have the time and resources to investigate how these programs work, and who can ferret out which school best serves their child’s needs.

K-12 students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as students without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2013–2014 school year. Students with disabilities also made up two-thirds of students who were restrained or isolated from their classmates.

One of the schools involved in Florida’s voucher program, South Florida Preparatory Christian Academy, used corporal punishment, according to the Miami New Times. The publication’s investigation found that the department of education has investigated 38 schools suspected of McKay voucher fraud, which has been enabled by the thin requirements schools must meet to qualify under the program.

It’s not just disabled students who see dubious gains from voucher programs. There isn’t evidence that they improve the quality of education for any students. In some cases, vouchers have even been shown to hurt student learning.