Tom On Point: Retractable rights

Thomas J. Gentzel

I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, which is home to an estimated 60,000 Amish, people with a distinct culture and a unique way of expressing themselves. Instead of turning off the light switch, for instance, they likely would say that you were “outening the lights.” When it’s raining lightly, it’s “spritzing,” and if someone ate the last piece of cake, well, “the dessert is all.”

One of my favorite Amish expressions is that something “wonders” you—meaning, it seems very strange or confusing. This came to mind as I read a recent article, which reported that several states require parents who receive tuition vouchers to waive protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Why would this be? The answer, actually, is pretty simple. A long-standing federal regulation makes the point bluntly: “No private school child with a disability has an individual right to receive some or all of the special education and related service that the child would receive if enrolled in a public school.”

Consequently, the U.S. Department of Education has recommended that states notify parents that certain rights are waived when they enroll their children in a private school.

Without descending into the rabbit hole that is the ongoing controversy about school choice, we should pause and reflect on this public policy. The big question is: Why should rights be granted only to certain students and not be available to all of them regardless of where they go to school? If the answer to that query is that private schools are paid for by the parents, so government should just stay out of the way, then another, even more important question arises: If the private school accepts public funds (i.e., vouchers), what legitimate reason then exists to exclude them from complying with the same requirements as public schools?

The current rules offer parents a Faustian bargain of giving up vital rights to qualify for private school vouchers. That such a trade-off even would be considered, let alone enacted, speaks volumes about how little some advocates for these taxpayer-funded schemes apparently care about the children they are purporting to help.

And so much for competition, the underlying premise for school choice. One of NSBA’s major arguments against these proposals is that public schools and private schools operate in entirely different worlds-—the former subject to extensive regulation and the latter largely devoid of the same. Tuition vouchers and similar plans make the playing field more unlevel by continuing to permit private schools to cast aside the immutable rights of students in public schools even when they accept public funding. This is not, as the Amish say, “mox nix” (irrelevant); it is an essential question in the school choice debate.

The unvarnished truth is that vouchers are more about the needs of the schools that receive them than those of the students who show up with them. If there were an equivalent of the Statue of Liberty for the school privatization movement, its motto might well read: “Just send me your best students, the ones easiest to educate.” Comparisons of performance between public and private schools are meaningless when the latter can pick and choose whom to accept, set conditions for admission, and deprive children who walk through their schoolhouse doors of rights and protections the law grants to public school students.

If all this wonders you, too, then you should contact your state and federal legislators and urge them to ensure that wherever tax dollars go, the same accountability standards for schools and the same rights and protections for students must follow. No exceptions.

Tom Gentzel

Thomas J. Gentzel ( is executive director and CEO of NSBA. Follow Gentzel on Twitter @Tom_NSBA


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