Iowa school vouchers pose challenges for students with disabilities

DES MOINES — Advocates for Iowans with disabilities say a new “school choice” law could allow discrimination against students with disabilities.

The bill creates “savings accounts” to allow families to send their children to private schools, some of which may not be equipped for students with special needs.

Public schools are required by law to serve all students who come to their campuses, but private schools are not.

Brooke Lovelace – executive director of the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council – said that could open the door for private schools to turn a student with a disability away for almost any reason, claiming they’re not equipped to meet that student’s needs.

“So then,” said Lovelace, “it comes down to – do, really, the students with disabilities have a choice between public and non-public schools, like the students without disabilities?”

Lovelace pointed out that the private school vouchers will also mean less money being invested in public classrooms – so students with disabilities who are denied entry to private schools would then be attending public schools that will have less money to provide services.

Lovelace said federal laws protect kids with disabilities who attend public schools, but those laws do not extend to private schools, which she predicts will become less inclusive and less diverse if students with disabilities are denied access.

“We do believe that students without disabilities benefit from attending schools with students with disabilities,” said Lovelace. “You know, it creates more of an inclusive community and it prepares students – with and without disabilities – for what adulthood is going to look like, where they’re not in a segregated community or a segregated school.”

The Educational Savings Accounts will make $7,600 available for each of Iowa’s K-12 students, at a cost of $345 million when it is fully phased in.