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.