Angie Donelson: School vouchers are eroding resources for children with special needs

2014-03-12T00:00:00Z Angie Donelson: School vouchers are eroding resources for children with special needsBy Angie Donelson Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The state Legislature is pushing educational vouchers under the banner of choice, but in fact it is taking choice away from our most vulnerable children.

A quartet of voucher bills redirect taxpayer funding from public education to private and homeschooling education: SB 1237, SB 1236, HB 2150 and HB 2291. Some want vouchers for all who attend Title 1 schools, or three-quarters of public schoolchildren. Under one scenario, families could take the $3,500 in funding public schools receive, plus an extra $1,200 per child our state gives charter schools, to use as they see fit.

The language of “empowerment,” “access” and “choice” sounds very attractive. But vouchers divert public funds to private schools and home-schoolers that are not held to public accountability standards and erode public-school resources for children with special needs.

The Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program, launched in 2011, sought to address the needs of children with disabilities by letting parents use vouchers to pay for private schools, tutoring or educational therapies. It serves about 700 children statewide.

As a parent of a child with special needs, I was eager to learn about ESAs at a 2012 forum. Vouchers are a real option for children with significant disabilities who cannot be educated well through traditional schools. But other parents and I believe public schools do a better job for most children with special needs.

Why? One, federal law requires them to serve all children. Two, they must meet accountability standards for measurement of progress, including for children with disabilities through Individualized Education Programs. Fully 10-12 percent of children statewide qualify for special education services through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Our public-school district, Tanque Verde Unified School District, has been wonderful in partnering with us. My experience and that of other parents I know reveals private schools (including privately owned and operated charters) cannot or will not meet these needs.

I have visited other schools to learn more about the educational marketplace. The principal at one private school said, “We can’t take your child.” Another private school administrator said he might if we provided a full-time aide on top of private tuition (though my child does not need or have one at his public school). A privately owned and operated charter put my child and a friend’s child with special needs on a wait list. We were required to provide school records with accommodations. We weren’t contacted again. Although charter schools are supposed to serve all children under IDEA because the schools receive public funds, in practice, there is no way to know as a parent if all are.

It makes economic sense that private schools would cherry pick the lowest-cost students. The ESA law, if passed, further incentivizes this profit motive. Moreover, it could pair $4,700 in vouchers with publicly funded tax credits; private-school tax credits were doubled in 2013 for up to $2,000 per household. When considering multiple families’ tax credits, this could translate to more than $6,700 per child. On top of this, some legislators would let parents roll $2,000 of their voucher funds annually into college education. This robs our public schools of increasingly limited public resources.

Of course, I could just home-school. Right now, the state would pay me a voucher to do that. But parents like me would have to stop working and take, rather than pay for, more state services. As a business owner, I pay corporate state taxes and subcontractors who also pay taxes. Most parents of special needs children cannot drop out of the workforce.

This legislative session’s voucher bills disenfranchise vulnerable children for whom the law was created. We can’t afford an educational environment skewed by profit motive that fails to serve our diverse society. Consider the long-term social and economic costs of abandoning 10-12 percent of our children. Please join me in calling our legislators to oppose all voucher legislation.

Angie Donelson, whose children attend the Tanque Verde Unified School District, is a volunteer with Tanque Verde A Plus, a nonpartisan network of parents, community leaders, and citizens in the Tanque Verde Unified School District who believe public education is the key to future prosperity and must be the first priority for public policy in Arizona. Contact her at angie.donelson@gmail.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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