Freedom for all? Will scholarships be viable for students with disabilities?


“Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience. I don't believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.” - Coretta Scott King

In March, Kentucky’s first lady wrote an opinion piece calling Kentucky’s proposed Freedom Scholarship Program “a great step toward improving access to education opportunities for all Kentucky’s children.”   We applaud Ms. Bevin for championing universal educational access.  However, we encourage her, Gov. Matt Bevin and the Kentucky General Assembly to pledge that any bill they support actually grants that access to all students, including those with disabilities.

Adequate public education for students with disabilities was not guaranteed until 1975, when Congress passed a law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandated that states provide a free, appropriate, public education to students with disabilities, in the same public schools their non-disabled peers attend.  IDEA ensures that unique learning needs are met, allowing students to realize their full potential and, to the maximum extent possible, grow up to be self-sufficient adults.

In Kentucky, where 15 percent of all public school students, over 100,000 students have disabilities, only 9 percent of those students graduate from high school ready for college and only 18 percent graduate ready for a career. Perhaps these statistics led the Kentucky bill's sponsor to include an enrollment preference for students with disabilities along with a specific purpose to “ensure that more students with special needs in the Commonwealth have access to the classroom or qualified special educational services that work best for their unique needs.”  Despite this focus, there is no requirement that schools accepting scholarship students with disabilities abide by the mandates of IDEA. Without these protections, students with disabilities will be left without meaningful access to this choice option.

The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools was founded to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to exemplary special education in public charter schools.   Our Equity Coalition has adopted Principles of Equitable Schools,  including accessibility, inclusion and accountability, which we encourage policymakers to prioritize as they develop any legislation expanding school choice.

If Kentucky is serious about serving all students, their Freedom Scholarship legislation should include language guaranteeing that schools accepting the scholarships follow IDEA.  Only then will the “freedom” truly extend to all students, including those with disabilities. 

Lauren Morando Rhim is the Executive Director, National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools


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