School vouchers

For Indiana special-ed students, choice comes at a cost

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016 

Indiana’s school voucher program gave private and religious schools more than $1.3 million in special education funding last year, but state law does not require oversight for the quality of services provided with those funds, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

Indiana’s public school districts must meet stringent requirements under federal special-education law, but the state’s private schools can be designated as special-education service providers — and receive associated state funding — without employing a single licensed special-education teacher.

“If the money is going to follow the child, then the laws should follow them also. Period,” said Mary Burton, president of the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education. “And that does not happen.”

With the support of Gov. Mike Pence (R), Indiana’s voucher program is one of the nation’s largest school-choice initiatives, an education reform approach that President-elect Donald Trump favors. As Pence prepares to assume the vice presidency, the Hoosier State’s voucher program offers some insight into the kind of policies the Trump administration might promote.

Indiana lawmakers broadened the school voucher program in 2013, creating more opportunities for those considered most vulnerable — including students with disabilities — to qualify for taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Indiana’s poorest students can qualify for vouchers valued between $4,700 and $6,500, depending on the amount of funding their assigned public schools would have otherwise received. Students with special needs can then qualify for an average of about $2,200 per student in additional funding to pay for the extra resources they require, such as physical therapy or a one-on-one aide.

Current law allows parents to decide whether that additional money, and the responsibility to provide special services, goes to the private school their child attends, or to the closest local school district.

Statewide last year, about 3,200 voucher recipients were eligible for special-education services, and more than 80 percent opted to receive services from their public districts, according to the state education department.

Public school districts are legally required to staff licensed professionals to deliver special-education services. But when parents choose to direct the additional funding toward their child’s private school, the state requires no specialized training or certification for private school staff members.

Once a private school receives a voucher student’s special-education funds, no outside entity has an obligation to oversee how effective the services are — or whether they are provided at all — unless a parent complains, according to state education officials.

Parents decide where to send the funds during the private school enrollment process, according to experts and state law, and some special-education advocates worry that not all private school leaders are being upfront with new families about what resources they can — and cannot — provide.

School-choice advocates laud the decision-making power given to Indiana parents and credit the state’s voucher law for having some of the toughest accountability measures in the nation. Participating private schools must be accredited and are graded — alongside public schools — based on their students’ standardized test scores.

The goal of the voucher program is “to provide a diversity of options so families can find the right one for the their son or daughter,” said John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, an organization supportive of the state voucher program. “Every kid should have the ability to be in a place where the lightbulb goes on and they’re able to be successful.”

Stephanie Schaefer, a mother of six from Newburgh, Ind., said the program gave her daughter the individualized attention she needed to flourish.

Schaefer’s daughter, Eliana, began receiving special-education services in the first grade at her local public school. But by third grade, Eliana’s struggles with both academics and anxiety increased to a point that Schaefer recalled leaving school conferences in tears, overwhelmed and unsure how to help her daughter.

Then she discovered the voucher program.

Schaefer said she took a copy of Eliana’s special-education plan to several private schools before choosing Evansville Christian School.

“It just felt good when somebody said, ‘I think we can help her. I think that we’re smaller. I think we can really give her what she needs,’ ” she said. “It felt wonderful as a parent being able to make that choice.”

Eliana, now in the seventh grade, still receives support in math but is reading on grade level due in large part to the extra attention she was able to receive in the private school’s smaller class sizes, Schaefer said.

Matt Riley, principal of Trinity Lutheran School in Indianapolis, said the vouchers allow struggling public school students to find schools that better match their needs.

“We are small enough that I know every kid, every parent’s face as they walk through the door,” Riley said. “Those are the kids that are maybe getting lost in the larger classrooms and the larger schools districts.”

But critics say that choice comes at a cost to students’ rights. Private schools are allowed to be exclusionary and can reject students because of their special needs.

Gina Kuntz Fleming, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, said her schools embrace all learners.

“There are some misnomers out there that we only pick the cream of the crop, that we cherry-pick the students we serve,” Fleming said. “That is not at all true.”

She said several of the schools she oversees are well-equipped to meet the needs of a diverse student population, from students with specific learning disabilities to autism. And she credited the state’s voucher law with providing her schools more resources, including additional teachers.

The rights of public school students with special needs are protected by due process safeguards under federal law. But when Indiana parents voluntarily enroll their child in a private school, they cede many of those rights, according to state law and education experts.

Under the voucher law, dissatisfied parents can file a formal complaint with the state education department, which then must conduct an investigation. In the past five years, just one parent has filed a complaint against a private school; it’s unclear from state data whether additional voucher recipients have filed complaints against their public school providers.

If a state investigation finds a private school to be at fault, the state’s authority is limited: it can make recommendations and can block the school from accepting future voucher students, but the state cannot legally compel a private school to improve its special-education programming, experts said. While parents at neighboring public schools could pursue litigation in similar circumstances, private school parents’ only recourse would be to withdraw their child from the school.

Even when private school parents choose for their children’s special-education plan to be administered by a public school district, the children may not receive the same level of services they would have received at the public school, according to the state education department.

Kristen Mason, of Evansville, Ind., said this “loophole” is as true for private school families paying full tuition as it is for those using vouchers.

Mason paid out-of-pocket for her daughter’s parochial school. She chose for the local public school district — which employed a certified speech and language pathologist — to administer her daughter’s special-education services.

Mason said she also expected the private school to use the teaching methods specified in her daughter’s special-education plan, such as individual guidance during testing. After discovering that her daughter’s second-grade teacher failed to provide her accommodations — and that she was subsequently failing — Mason said the school’s solution was to remind teachers by posting her daughter’s confidential learning plan on the wall, on public display.

“I couldn’t just sit by and let that go,” said Mason, who transferred her daughter midyear to Delaware Elementary, a public school where she said teachers had training in special education. “They understood more what she was facing and what she needed.”

Richard Burden, executive director of Insource, an Indiana organization that helps families of special-education students understand their rights, said parents often value the ability to make a choice, even if it ends up being a bad one.

“Sometimes, it feels like just having the opportunity to choose has more weight than the actual experiences or outcome,” he said.