School choice empowers families with students who have special needs to find what works for them. In fact, many school choice programs across the United States have been designed specifically to serve students with special needs because they often get left behind when they are simply assigned to a school under the traditional system. It’s important to note that families of students with special needs are informed of their rights when they opt into non-traditional programs.
It’s also important to note that education savings accounts or ESAs, which allow families to tailor schooling options beyond tuition—for example, with specialized therapy or tutoring—represent the next wave of school choice and can be particularly helpful for students with special needs who require customized learning opportunities.
Furthermore, empirical research shows when parents are empowered with vouchers, they actually are more likely to obtain desired services for their children.
In one study, participants in Florida’s McKay voucher program, which serves special needs students, were surveyed to see how likely they were to get services in their private school compared to their previous public school. Only 30 percent of voucher participants said they received all services required under federal law from their public school, whereas 86 percent reported their choice school provided all the services they promised to provide.
Moreover, 47 percent reported they were “bothered often” and 25 percent reported being physically assaulted at their previous public schools because of their disabilities, compared to 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively, saying the same about their choice schools.
Finally, more than 90 percent of former McKay participants who have left the program said the McKay program should continue to be available for those who wish to use it.
Another large survey found almost 90 percent of McKay respondents “were satisfied or very satisfied with the school their child attends, whereas only 71.4 percent of public school respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the school their child attends.”
In short, school choice policies for special needs populations allow parents to find a school that matches their children’s individual needs. That is why more than 58,000 students participate in school choice programs exclusively serving students with disabilities in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.
School Choice Programs with a Pathway for Students with Special Needs
* Includes dependents of active military members stationed in the state
† Expanded to include students assigned to “D” or “F” public schools, children of military members who were killed in the line of duty, siblings of current or previous ESA recipients, students eligible to attend kindergarten, and students living on Native American reservations
‡ Expanded to include children previously in foster care and dependents of active military members stationed in the state
# Initially focused on students from families earning up to 150 percent of the federal free and reduced-price lunch program income limit