A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report commissioned by three education choice opponents, two of them from Wisconsin (Representatives Mark Pocan and Gwen Moore), makes the case that private schools in school choice programs are bamboozling the parents of disabled kids with respect to their rights under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  This report is being used by Pocan to claim that parents of disabled students are unaware of the rights they surrender under IDEA when they choose to send their student to a choice school. To remedy this, the report calls for Congress to require notification of the surrender of these rights when students leave public schools.

The accusations contained in this report are serious, and are no doubt designed to demonize the school choice movement. A few important points are not being highlighted by the current media coverage of this topic and warrant attention.

At least for Wisconsin, this is a report about nothing. While this may not be the case in some states, the Wisconsin Special Needs Scholarship Program provides a substantially larger voucher than the state’s traditional school choice programs that may allow schools to better meet the needs of students with disabilities. The state Department of Public Instruction puts out a report each year that includes information about the services that each participating school is equipped to offer. Parents have access to the information they need to determine if a school is appropriate for their child.

Pocan also uses this study to attack accountability in school choice programs, but the study shows that Wisconsin is meeting the standards of accountability the GAO itself sets forth. Of the ten accountability standards listed in the report, Wisconsin already has eight in place. A ninth–background checks–is currently being implemented. It is curious that two Wisconsin members of Congresss would commission this report given Wisconsin’s exceptional track record on this issue.

Parents are satisfied with the education their kids are receiving.  At its core, school choice is about trusting parents and families to make the decisions that are best for their kids. Even if it is true that parents of students with disabilities are giving up some benefits when choosing a choice school, there is extensive evidence that parents are satisfied with the education they are receiving. 

For example, the McKay Scholarship in Florida is a program specifically tailored to the requirements of special needs students. A survey of Florida parents found nearly 90 percent of McKay scholarship parents were satisfied with the school their student attended, compared with only 71.4 percent of public school parents. Similar studies on programs focused on disabled students have found high levels of satisfaction from Mississippi to Arizona

Choice schools do not have discretion over IDEA funds. Private schools that take on students with special needs do not have discretion over the IDEA funds for these students. Instead, these funds are distributed in a manner determined by the home school district. In other words, a private school may wish to provide a particular service for a student, but the school district may decide to apply the funds in a different way. Rather than making parents aware of what services they are giving up, it seems that a better solution might be ensuring that private schools have adequate control over the IDEA funds for their kids.

Choice Schools still enroll students with disabilities. One of the most comprehensive studies on students with disabilities and education choice was produced by Dr. Patrick Wolf and colleagues. In this study, the authors looked at the rates of reported disability in public schools and choice schools in Milwaukee. 

Among the key findings was that approximately 7 to 14 percent of reported that their child had a disability in a choice school. While this rate was somewhat lower than Milwaukee Public Schools, it is suggestive that there is not some form of veiled discrimination going on. 

Note that this was before the existence of the Special Needs Scholarship, meaning that choice schools were receiving thousands of dollars less per student to educate these kids than they would receive in public schools. Indeed, a lengthy investigation of Milwaukee’s school choice programs under the Obama Justice Department found no evidence of discrimination. Once again, Pocan and Moore appear to be ignoring the reality in their own state.

School choice opponents will seemingly go to any length to deny access to better schools to families of low and moderate incomes. Despite enlisting the help of the GAO for this latest attack, the bottom line is that we should trust families more than bureaucrats to know what educational options are best for their kids.

Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
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