KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
We're going to hear now about a new report on school vouchers and students with disabilities. Some states let parents use public funds to enroll their children in private schools. For students with disabilities, leaving public schools can mean leaving behind important federal protections. But many parents don't know this, one reason voucher programs and private schools often don't tell them. Here's Cory Turner with the NPR Ed team.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: In public schools, federal law makes a few promises to the parents of kids with disabilities. And here's the big one - their children are guaranteed what's called free and appropriate public education, or FAPE. Now, that includes access to special services and trained teachers. Whenever possible, public schools also have to balance those services with access to general education classes. But if parents use a voucher to voluntarily move their child to a private school, well, that right to FAPE, it evaporates.
JACKIE NOWICKI: Because the law applies to public schools. It - that's why it's called a free and appropriate public education.
TURNER: Jackie Nowicki is director of K-12 education at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which released this latest report on the nation's voucher programs. It's a problem, she says, that some parents don't realize they're giving up important rights when they use a voucher. And the GAO found that many private voucher schools don't bother to tell them that. Nowicki and her team reviewed a nationally representative sample of more than 300 private school websites.
NOWICKI: We estimate that no more than half of all schools participating in any type of voucher program provide information on their websites about students with disabilities.
TURNER: The GAO also looked at the information parents get directly from voucher programs. Some, according to the review, do a good job of walking parents through the basics. But many don't, even programs designed specifically for kids with disabilities. In fact, Nowicki says 83 percent of kids enrolled in these disability-focused voucher programs were either told nothing or given inaccurate information about how their rights would change in a private school. The GAO also interviewed a very small sample of families. Some said they're happy in private schools and that their kids are getting better care, but others admitted being surprised that their child's voucher school could charge them for special services, that some teachers weren't well trained, or that some schools couldn't accommodate their child's disability.
NOWICKI: You know, we may all be presented with kind of a set of facts and make different decisions based on those facts. But I think being able to make good decisions is predicated on having good, clear, consistent, accurate information on which to base those decisions.
TURNER: That's why at the end of this new report the GAO recommends that Congress consider requiring states to be clearer with parents about their rights. The GAO's message is not that school choice is inherently bad, but that parents deserve to know what they're choosing. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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