School Vouchers: What You Need to Know

By Kate Kelly
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At a Glance

  • School vouchers redirect public education funds for tuition to private schools.

  • Not all states offer school vouchers.

  • Private schools are not required to offer the same special education services that public schools offer.

School voucher programs aren’t new, but they’re getting more attention than ever. If you have a child with learning and thinking differences, you may wonder what school vouchers are, and if your child could benefit. Here’s what you need to know.

What School Vouchers Are

States offer school voucher programs as a way to give parents choices in what school their child attends. Parents receive funds to use toward the cost of private school. (Not all states allow vouchers to be used at schools affiliated with a religion, however.) In some cases, they may also be used for homeschooling.

The typical dollar amount of a voucher varies, but it almost always falls short of the cost of a private school. Parents have to pay the difference between the voucher amount and the school’s tuition. Some private schools may agree not to charge more than the amount of the voucher, though.

This funding is removed from the public schools and given to the private schools. (It’s typically less than what a state allocated per student.) Vouchers can be a controversial topic in some communities.

Voucher programs have been around since the early 1990s. They’re not available in all states—or even to all students where they are available. The new secretary of education favors these programs, however, so it’s possible more states will start offering them. (Get answers to common questions about the new administration and special education.)

There are three types of voucher programs:

1. Traditional voucher programs. States give parents a certain amount of public education funding to put toward private school tuition. Most states set requirements that schools must meet to accept a voucher. The number of approved schools varies.

2. Education savings accounts (ESA). States set aside money and put it in individual accounts for students. Parents can use the money toward the cost of private school tuition. But they can also spend it on homeschooling costs (such as online courses or tutoring) and even on some types of therapy.

The main difference between an ESA and a traditional voucher is that school vouchers can only be used at participating schools. If parents use ESA funds for tuition, they can “spend” it at whatever school they choose.

3. Tax credit scholarships. States give businesses or individuals tax credits to donate money to a scholarship organization. Students who meet the requirements of the program can use the scholarship money toward tuition at a private school.

Eligibility for Voucher Programs

School vouchers are currently available in nearly 30 states, plus Washington, DC. Some states only offer them to students who apply for the program and fall into certain groups. These groups include:

  • Students with disabilities

  • Kids from low-income families who meet certain income thresholds

  • Students who are zoned for a school that’s failing

Enrollment and Discipline Policies With Vouchers

Even if you have a voucher, a private school doesn’t have to admit your child like a public school does. And after admittance, they can expel your child for poor behavior or academic performance.

Private schools can set their own policies for enrollment and discipline. It’s important to ask about the policies before you take a voucher.

Vouchers and Special Education

There are a number of reasons why parents may prefer a private school over a public school. But school vouchers have some limitations. And if you have a child with learning and thinking differences, there are extra considerations to be aware of before accepting one.

Kids with disabilities have certain rights in public school, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Among other things, the law says they must have:

But IDEA doesn’t apply to private schools (Child Find stays in effect, though). They don’t have to provide FAPE, IEPs or evaluations for your child. The services and supports outlined in an IEP your child might have in public school don’t “travel” with him to private school.

If your child needs an evaluation, then it’s likely you will have to pay for it on your own, because the private school may not provide that service. (You may be able to get one for free from your public school district under Child Find, however.)

Also, if your child receives additional services in school—like speech therapy or occupational therapy—private schools do not have to provide these services. These supports may have to be purchased outside of school.

Private schools also don’t have to follow hiring guidelines that public schools do. This means your child’s teachers may not have the same level of special education expertise that public school teachers have.

They don’t have to provide data on how well their students are doing, either. They don’t have to give standardized tests. That makes it hard to know how special education students are faring.

Before you take a voucher, ask what you can expect from the private school you’re looking at. Compare the supports and services it provides with the ones your child is getting at public school.

It’s important to know that vouchers aren’t the same as a charter school. Charter schools are public schools and must follow IDEA and provide needed services in an IEP.

Different Rules for Vouchers in Different States

Voucher programs can vary widely from state to state. It’s important to know what your state requires of both you and of the schools participating in the program.

Some states require parents who accept a voucher to give up their rights entirely under IDEA. But even if your state doesn’t require that, you aren’t likely to have any recourse if your child isn’t getting the services or support he needs. In that case, your only option may be to leave.

You can go back to public school and resume supports and services under an IEP. However, you may have to the start the evaluation process over.

Opponents of school vouchers also point out a larger issue with voucher programs. They believe school vouchers drain money from the public schools. When that happens, public schools have fewer resources for the students who stay.

If you’re considering using a voucher, learn more about private schools and special education. Get tips on what to look for in a private school. And find out who pays for an evaluation or additional services if your child is at a private school.

Key Takeaways

  • Before taking a school voucher, know what the rules are in your state.

  • Private schools are not subject to the same special education law that public schools are.

  • If you take a voucher, your child may receive fewer supports and services than he did in the public school, and you may have to pay for an evaluation and services on your own.

About the Author

About the Author

Kate Kelly 

has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Lindsay Jones, JD 

is chief executive officer of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).

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