LCCR Letter on IDEA Voucher Amendment

Media 04.9,03

Recipient: U.S. Senate

April 9, 2003

Dear Representative:

On behalf of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), we urge you to oppose school voucher amendments during committee consideration of the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The school voucher amendment under consideration is similar to the McKay voucher program currently being implemented in Florida. We believe that this school voucher proposal would undermine the effectiveness of this important education legislation that serves our most vulnerable of students.

Currently, the IDEA guarantees to every child with a disability a free and appropriate public education. Diverting public funds to private and parochial schools through vouchers undermines that guarantee. Instead, vouchers would subsidize the enrollment of children in private schools that are not accountable, nor subject to federal civil rights laws.

LCCR is the nation’s oldest, largest and most diverse civil rights coalition comprised of 180 national organizations representing persons of color, women, persons with disabilities, labor groups, gays and lesbians, older Americans, and religious groups. In particular, our coalition is dedicated to maintaining civil rights in primary, secondary, and institutions of higher learning. We oppose initiatives that threaten the rights of public school students and their parents.

Civil Rights Protections

Children with disabilities who are enrolled in public school, or who are served by public agency programs in private schools, are protected by legal rights stemming from their status under IDEA, as well as all federal, state, and local civil rights laws that apply to public schools. Under a voucher program, these rights would not necessarily apply.

Participating private schools could also continue to discriminate in their enrollment and employment practices based on otherwise impermissible criteria, such as gender and religion. Students might be segregated by race or ethnicity in classrooms. Most disconcerting is the fact that these schools could discriminate on the basis of disability and decline to accept the very students IDEA was created to protect. This is in sharp contrast with public schools, which accept all children and supply whatever services are needed to provide them with a free and appropriate public education. Further, where public schools do not have the capacity to deal with a disability, a well-defined exception allows children to be placed elsewhere.

Equal Opportunity for All Students

The Supreme Court’s June 27, 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the case declaring the Cleveland voucher program constitutional, does not justify the blanket expansion of voucher programs within the public education system. Despite claims to the contrary, this decision does not advance the principle of equal educational opportunity for all, but, in fact, goes against the fundamental premise espoused in the 1954 landmark desegregation decision of Brown v. Board of Education. This discrepancy exists because voucher programs, by design, do not serve all. For instance, public schools accept all children, but private and religious schools can?and often do?discriminate by rejecting students due to academic standing, disabilities, behavioral problems, religious affiliation, or other factors. Indeed, while voucher proponents claim to provide low-income parents with “choice,” it is the private schools, not parents, who choose. Further, despite the receipt of federal funds, schools receiving school vouchers as tuition would not be subject to the accountability standards set out in the No Child Left Behind Act or to long standing federal civil rights laws that seek to protect the right to a free and appropriate education.

Furthermore, Brown v. Board of Education struck an important blow against racial segregation in the public schools, yet studies show that vouchers fail to advance this vision and may actually worsen segregation. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University confirmed this situation through an analysis of federal data, showing that private religious schools are more racially segregated than public schools. In sum, adoption of a voucher amendment would subvert the basic purposes of IDEA ? to ensure that children are educated in the least restrictive environment and that schools will be accountable for their progress. Such an amendment would also subvert basic constitutional and civil rights.

For these reasons we urge you to oppose voucher amendments during consideration of the reauthorization of IDEA. If you have any questions, please call Bill Taylor, Vice Chair, at 202/659-5565, or Nancy Zirkin, Deputy Director, at 202/263-2880.


Dr. Dorothy I. Height
Wade Henderson
Executive Director

cc: Members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce