About That Private School Disability “Discrimination”

Everyone wants what’s best for children with disabilities. So it is not surprising when private schools—and hence school choice programs—are criticized because they do not have to accept all children with disabilities. We’ve heard the concerns before, and we heard them again in an NPR story yesterday taking the Indiana voucher program to task for private schools turning away kids with disabilities.

How could they be so cruel, we might ask, and choice supporters so callous?

Let’s start with a simple reality: Educating children with disabilities is generally more expensive than educating children without them, and private schools often struggle just to pay for educating the latter group. That should be no surprise: In the 2011–12 academic year—the most recent with public and private data—public schools spent $13,398 per pupil. Private schools, which rely on families paying tuition after they have paid taxes for the “free” public schools, charged on average $11,170, and many private students receive tuition discounts and aid. For Roman Catholic and other religious institutions—the most numerous private schools—tuition was even lower: $7,170 and $9,040, respectively. Private schools do sometimes receive subsidies from parishes, dioceses, and donors, but it is herculean task to overcome public schools’ big funding and pricing advantages.

But in Indiana there is a voucher program, so surely private schools there have no excuse.

Set aside that for most of the life of Hoosier private schools there was no voucher program—it only started in 2011—so they were hard-pressed to compete for non-disabled students, much less establish robust special education programs. Is the funding equitable now?

No. As the NPR story notes, “the poorest students qualify for a voucher that’s worth roughly 90 percent of what the state would have spent in a public school, but now some middle class families actually qualify for a half voucher.” So no one using a voucher gets their full state allotment. And the state is only one funder of public schools; altogether, Indiana public schools spent over $10,000 per student. What’s the biggest average voucher? Only about $5,700.

To be fair, in the 2013–14 school year voucher-receiving schools became eligible to receive state special education funds for students with disabilities, but see the previous point: that’s not much time to build up strong accomodations.

Let’s move the spotlight: Do all public schools actually have to take all students with disabilities? No. Not only do public schools sometimes fail to provide relatively easy accommodations, some disabilities are too challenging for even well-funded public schools to handle. As of 2013—the most recent date for which I could find data—around 4 percent of students with disabilities, or 259,000 children, were in private schools or other settings that were not regular schools, or private schools chosen by parents.

Private schools tend to have appreciably less money than the “free” public schools against which they have to compete; vouchers in Indiana—NPR’s target—don’t provide funding parity; and public schools redirect some kids with disabilities. Suddenly private schools don’t seem so exclusionary or heartless. Instead, the “discrimination” line, even if well intended, seems kind of unfair to them.

One more thing: School choice is increasingly being targeted to children with disabilities, with programs now in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin. Why? Because parents with special needs children, especially, want empowerment—the ability to seek out what’s best for their children and control the money to educate them—rather than dependence on byzantine laws, bureaucracy, and just plain hope that maybe the system will work for their children. It’s why Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program—the granddaddy of special needs choice programs—enrolls over 30,000 students and has enjoyed very high parental support.

As long as Donald Trump is in the White House talking about a federal school choice program, the fire directed at educational freedom will likely be coming hot and heavy. But if you are going to critique education that empowers families, please at least provide all the relevant information.