Jennifer and Joe, a Douglas County couple whose teenage son attends a private school for students with autism, don’t want to be portrayed as a school choice success story.
But that’s exactly how they feel they were represented during a high-profile visit to the Denver school this fall by the nation’s top education official, Betsy DeVos.
The U.S. secretary of education, known for her support of charter schools and private school vouchers, didn’t name the Douglas County couple during her September speech to reporters, parents and school staff. But she talked about the landmark special education case they’d brought against their suburban Denver school district — the same district embroiled in a separate court battle over its plan to offer private school vouchers.
She described how the couple had pulled their son Endrew out of public school and placed him at Firefly Autism House, where he’d thrived.
“The district essentially dared them to sue, so they did and they won,” DeVos told the audience. “Endrew’s parents showed courage in rejecting the low bar set for their son.”
DeVos never mentioned vouchers directly, but her plug for school choice — with Joe, Jennifer and their son Endrew as protagonists — was clear.
“Every family should have that ability to choose the learning environment that’s right for their child,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to sue their way to the Supreme Court to get it.”
Jennifer and Joe, who asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy, said in an interview with Chalkbeat that DeVos used their case to further her school choice agenda.
“To hold us out there as a poster child on how a private school is working for our child and how this is how school choice is supposed to work, really bugs me,” Joe said.
“It was a little disappointing,” Jennifer said. “She picked the parts that she liked and used them for what she wanted.”
Liz Hill, U.S. Department of Education press secretary, responded via email to a request for DeVos’s response to Jennifer and Joe’s concerns.
She wrote, “Secretary DeVos appreciates and admires the courageous commitment Endrew F’s parents demonstrated to ensure their son received an education that met his individual and unique needs. They are but one of thousands of families across the nation who are fighting to get a better education for their children. The secretary stands with all parents who want the best for their children.”
With the recent election of four Douglas County school board candidates who oppose vouchers, it’s likely the district’s voucher program will never launch. Still, DeVos has voiced support for expanding voucher programs and putting federal funds toward them.
DeVos’s public words were particularly hard to take, Jennifer and Joe said, because they had met with the education secretary privately at her request. They were flattered by her interest, but felt she didn’t understand why private school vouchers would never work for them — or many other families who have children with disabilities.
First, the dollar amount of most voucher programs is paltry compared to what it costs to pay for specialized private schools like Firefly. Tuition there is more than $70,000 a year.
“Say, there was a voucher system in place and let’s pick $5,000.” Jennifer said. “That’s not enough for placement at Firefly. It doesn’t do anything.”
Jennifer and Joe, who own a company that sells industrial equipment, pay around half of Firefly’s tuition and their health insurance pays the rest, they said.
A 2016 report from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national membership organization, highlighted the potential for such inequities.
“Voucher funding is rarely sufficient and generally does not cover the full cost of the child’s education, meaning that only parents with adequate finances truly have a choice,” the report states.
Selene Almazan, legal director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and co-author of the report, said her organization has not taken a position on vouchers — some of its parent members are very happy using them — but has researched members’ concerns about them.
The report found the median amount of vouchers is $5,000 to $7,000, with a low of $2,000 in Mississippi and a high of $27,000 in Ohio for a student with autism.
Douglas County’s voucher program, which was put on hold because of the legal challenges, would have allowed vouchers worth 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding, or about $5,000.
There’s another key issue at stake in the conversation about vouchers for students with disabilities — one Jennifer and Joe asked DeVos about during their private conversation.
Do students with disabilities lose their rights to a fair and appropriate education — a guarantee under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — if they use vouchers to attend private schools?
Yes, DeVos said.
“She answered point blank,” Joe said.
While Joe and Jennifer say they were talking about the issue in the context of Florida’s voucher program, experts say the loss of rights occurs in a number of states and oftentimes parents are in the dark.
Such rules mean that families “don’t have a right to challenge the services they’re going to be receiving in private school,” said Almazan.
In other words, the legal battle Jennifer and Joe successfully fought after Endrew’s progress stalled in public school would be impossible under the rules of many private school voucher programs.
DeVos’s public responses to questions about the issue have focused on the implications under a federal voucher program, if one were launched. During Senate subcommittee testimony about a proposed federal voucher program last summer, DeVos said schools receiving federal funds must follow federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. But she has also praised existing state programs that do require students to give up most IDEA rights.
Almazan said the loss of rights stems from a provision that was included in the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA that says students who are “parentally placed” in private schools aren’t entitled to a free and appropriate education as promised by the 1975 education law. Nationwide, a number of voucher programs, including the one crafted by Douglas County School District, classify voucher-using students as parentally placed and thus their rights under the federal law are revoked.
In response to questions from Chalkbeat, U.S. Department of Education officials agreed that protections under IDEA do change for students using state vouchers, but that they are still eligible for certain services, including a consultation between the public school district and the private school about special education services.
Jennifer and Joe said DeVos told them families get their rights back if they return to public school after using a voucher. Still, given that families often leave public school because they are dissatisfied with the program, returning in order to reclaim their rights doesn’t make sense, they say.
“It seems like a lose-lose to me,” Jennifer said.
“I’m not theoretically opposed to vouchers, but … I don’t think it has any place in special needs education,” Joe said.
Jennifer and Joe had only a brief period to meet with DeVos so there’s at least one thing they didn’t get a chance to explain.
That is, why private school — even one as good as Firefly — was never their first choice for Endrew. Unlike the local public schools, which are close enough to see from their Highlands Ranch home, the private school is a 25 minute drive away.
Firefly, “has been immeasurably helpful and good for him and for our family,” Jennifer said. “But he’s missed out on all of those years of friendship and growth with all of his peers in his neighborhood.”