Across the country, thousands of children attend private schools through publicly funded voucher programs and education savings accounts, with states giving money directly to parents to spend at a school of their choice.
But parents sacrifice legal safeguards if their child with a disability attends a private school through these programs, according to a report released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office. Protections that require public schools to provide speech therapy, tutoring and specialized education plans do not apply to private schools.
The GAO report found that many states with voucher programs and education savings accounts do not inform parents of students with disabilities how their rights change when a child transfers to private school through a choice program. About half the private schools the GAO surveyed offered little or no information about their special-education services on their websites.
The report examined 27 private school choice programs in 15 states, including several that serve children with disabilities exclusively. The study authors also interviewed 17 families with a child with a disability who participated in a private school choice program.
There was far less oversight in these private schools: Only nine of the 27 school choice programs required schools to test their students and report the results. Ten of the programs did not require participating private schools to conduct background checks of school employees. Only eight had to comply with financial audits.
In a response to the GAO study, the Education Department said the report unfairly assumes that parents who transfer a child with disabilities to a private school are unaware of how their rights will change. It defended private school choice programs.
“Parents may believe that educational benefits or services provided by private schools to their children with disabilities outweigh any rights conferred by [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] or services provided by public schools,” wrote Kimberly M. Richey, the acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has backed measures that give parents more options regarding where they send their children to school, including state programs that direct public dollars into private and parochial schools. These programs have raised concerns among civil rights advocates, who point out that private schools are not bound by the same civil rights laws — including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — as public schools.
“The new report from GAO shows the outrageously low standards to which many school voucher programs are held,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, where about 34,000 children attend private schools with help from the state. Pocan was one of three members of Congress who asked the GAO to look into private school choice.
The GAO recommended that the Education Department require states to notify parents of children with disabilities that their rights will change if they send a child to private school.
But the Education Department wrote in its response that it did not have the authority to require states to notify parents their rights will change if they send a child with disabilities to a private school.
Richey pointed out, too, that a number of families interviewed for the report were satisfied with their child’s public school.
The report’s conclusions “imply the lack of information affects the choices made by parents, but the data in the report that ‘a number of families expressed satisfaction with the private schools their child attends’ belies that conclusion,” Richey wrote. “Parents will seek information consistent with the individual needs of their children.”