In the debate over school choice, much attention has focused on how vouchers could help low-income students escape poor-performing schools.
But advocates for students with disabilities say a proposed voucher program -- which would allow kids to redirect the cost of their public schooling to private academies -- will leave those kids out in the cold.
"We have to remember that any one of us is simply an accident away from having a disability," says Cindy Duch, a parent adviser at the Strip District-based PEAL Center, which helps families and children with disabilities. "This isn't something that may never touch anyone."
The current voucher bill, Senate Bill 1, was proposed by Republican state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin) and Democrat state Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia.) Williams unsuccessfully tried to secure the Democratic nomination for governor in 2010, running with $5 million from pro-voucher advocates. (See related story on page 12.)
The bill would allow parents of a low-income child to redirect their child's portion of state money that would otherwise go to their local school district. Parents may opt to instead use the money at any school -- private or public -- that will accept the voucher.
"People are clamoring for more options," Piccola said when he announced the bill on Jan. 11. "We simply cannot afford the cost that the public-education system has been driving."
However, voucher opponents, like the Disability Rights Network and Education Law Center, say the bill would discriminate against students with special needs by denying them the choice. Voucher opponents worry that private schools would get to pick and choose who they accept -- and that many schools will opt out of educating kids with physical or mental disabilities that make them hard to teach.
"We have a dividing culture with this legislation," says state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Highland Park), a member of the Senate Education Committee who opposes vouchers. For those with developmental or intellectual disabilities, he says, "We're creating a second-class citizenship."
State and federal laws entitle students with disabilities the right to a free public education, provided in the least restrictive environment. If a child with a disability can be educated in a regular classroom and still have his or her needs met, for example, the public-school system must do so.
Such laws "really place high expectations on public schools," says Sallie Lynagh, Children's Team Leader at the Disability Rights Network.
At the Pittsburgh Public Schools, for example, if a child is determined to have a disability, a team and the parents devise an Individual Education Program, or IEP. The IEP covers everything from in-classroom support to having a student work in a resource room for part of the day. IEPs can be challenged by parents, tweaked and evaluated annually.
A private school, on the other hand, is only required to accommodate students with disabilities if it receives federal funding, and non-religious private schools are required to comply only with some standards for the Americans With Disabilities Act. Under the voucher system, private schools won't be required to follow IEPs or create them for incoming students.
Without such protections, Lynagh worries, "A nonpublic school can say, 'We can't deal with it so there's the door.'"
"Many private schools, including most Catholic schools, do offer special-education programs," Sen. Piccola wrote in response to emailed questions from City Paper. But, he adds, "Some private schools are small and do not have the resources" to do so. And he notes that parents most likely won't enroll their child in a nonpublic school that doesn't offer a special-education program.
Which is the problem, say those advocating for disabled students: Private schools are no under obligation to offer special-education programs at all.
"Let's face it -- [private schools] are going to get to pick and choose" who they let in, says Sandy Zelno, a school-reform associate at the Education Law Center. "The intent of this bill is to exclude kids with disabilities because they're harder to educate."
Sen. Ferlo agrees. "Public schools take everyone," he says. SB 1, he says, violates "democratic principles in so many ways, despite the rhetoric of 'school choice.' Nothing could be further from the truth."
Anthony Williams, however, disputes that schools will just pick and choose: Disabled students, too, will have more options, he says. Williams says he had a learning disability as a child, which was identified when he received a scholarship to a private school.
"A real fear that seems to be erupting surrounding this bill is that so-called elite schools will 'cream' the public schools, taking only a select group of students and find excuses not to admit others," Williams said in an email. "My history is contrary to that."
Williams, who is black and grew up in Philadelphia, adds, "There is no secret agenda to establish de facto discrimination using public money. That would be counter to my entire legislative career and family history."
Williams also points out that under SB 1, low-income students in the poorest-performing schools would have first shot at the vouchers. "There is a disproportionate number of children in poverty with IEPs," he says.
But Zelno and others worry about how admissions policies might change if more private operators open schools to take advantage of an influx of voucher students. In an analysis on the bill, the Education Law Center wrote that as the number of voucher recipients increases each year, schools will have more and more students to choose from. That result, the study warns, could "further reduc[e] school's incentive to accept children with disabilities who may be more costly or difficult to educate."
Piccola and Williams' bill doesn't say much about admission policies for students with disabilities; it just states that a nonpublic school "does not discriminate in its admission policies or practices for ... applicants on the basis of measures of achievement, aptitude or status as a handicapped person."
Both senators say they don't believe the bill will discriminate. "The intent of this legislation is to increase opportunities." Williams says. "Not limit them or punish others."
The bill is currently pending before the Senate Education Committee, which Piccola chairs. In the meantime, advocates from the Disability Rights Network have proposed suggestions which include requiring private schools to offer protections similar to those at a public facility.
Lynagh says the Disability Rights Network hasn't had any feedback from Piccola or Williams on the proposals. Ferlo says the attention should be turned back on fixing public schools instead of trying to "gut" them.
"No one wants to support failing schools. If you take some of the students who are more likely in a learning mode, the failing schools, or what's left of them, will be an in an even worse scenario," he says. "That's not the answer."