Parents, Taxpayers Shortchanged by Private School Laws

During Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings she was asked about her views on setting standards for services for students with disabilities. Her answer was simple: “I think that’s a matter that’s best left to the states.”

But leaving the matter to Florida last year meant nearly $7 million tax dollars came to 26 Seminole County private schools with no strings attached.
Education Disability Florida In Florida the McKay Scholarship program, created in 1999, provides scholarship money from Florida taxpayers to K-12 students with disabilities. The program has been expanded to include home schooled students, foster kids and more disability categories. On the surface that may sound good, but there are no accountability standards for private schools to match the strict standards and paperwork required of public schools to document a special need student’s progress.

Students with disabilities are protected through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that guarantees their right to get the same education as other students without discrimination. Furthermore, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), ensures a “free and appropriate public education” for all students and public schools are mandated to evaluate, classify a diagnosis and develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP is a very detailed report involving a team of staff and teachers listing specific goals for the child and plans to achieve them. Parents are encouraged to attend regular IEP meetings. Should a parent become dissatisfied with their child’s progress or have a complaint, they can take legal action against the school board.

When a parent decides to use the McKay Scholarship and have their child attend a private school, they are forfeiting these rights and are essentially on their own. If a private school decides it can no longer handle a disabled student, they are free to remove them, but the school can keep the McKay money it has received for that child. “We see kids all the time popping back and forth (between public and private schools and back again),” says Seminole County Public Schools Help Services Coordinator Debbie Caudill. “It’s an onion with so many layers.”

It is also important to note the amount of McKay money awarded to a parent is determined by the type of services their child was receiving from the state in the public school district and does not cover the full cost of the tuition and fees at a private school. With the county’s private school tuition average of nearly $10,000/year, students from lower income families would not be able to pay the balance.

By law, the Florida Department of Education cannot regulate private schools in any way, so, FDOE says, private schools are “solely responsible for all aspects of their educational programs, including certification, qualification, and training of teachers and administrators.”

By comparison, in Seminole public schools all Exceptional Student Education (ESE) teachers need to be certified K-12 to teach special needs students in a general education classroom. All public school general education teachers are required to complete a 20-hour ESE introductory course on all exceptionalities. High school special education teachers often have more certifications and endorsements for dealing with varying behavioral and emotional disorders.

“We have more training than any [private school teachers] do,” says Sue Carson, President Seminole UniServe, an umbrella organization which represents the four local associations in the Seminole County Public School system and a former ESE teacher . Seminole County public schools also have more resources for parents to take advantage of, such as the UCF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), according to Carson.

The lack of oversight impacts students’ assessments, too. Private schools are not required to participate in standardized testing to determine if a student is on track or is making significant progress toward any educational goals.

Ironically DeVos, a strong proponent of the voucher system for private schools and who wants to leave setting standards to the states, is pushing for even more standardized testing, teacher evaluations and limitless paperwork in public schools. Recent testing mandates have reportedly interrupted almost half of the regular school days last year.

With little or no state accountability standards to follow or public access to data, it is difficult to evaluate whether private school special needs students are receiving the proper instruction in the right classroom setting. According to a recent report published by the Albert Shanker Institute, a pro-public education nonprofit organization, there have been inconsistent results for students with disabilities’ progress.

As Gov. Scott and Florida Republican legislators seek to align themselves with DeVos’ goals for education, it is more important than ever for parents and taxpayers to stay informed and hold our state representatives accountable for our students, especially those with disabilities.