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Protecting the Rights of Students with Disabilities in Schools

Protecting the Rights of Students with Disabilities in Schools

Throughout February, we are commemorating Jewish Disability Awareness Month, a unique opportunity to highlight the ways that we as a community can be more inclusive and supportive of people with disabilities. It is important that we keep in mind all the many facets of how so many of the issues we work on at the RAC uniquely affect people with disabilities. For example, you might not know about the connection between the rights of students with disabilities and private school vouchers, but there are serious concerns regarding how the preponderance of "school choice" programs will affect these students.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was passed into 1990 to ensure that every student with a disability could have access to a free accessible public education. This means that our public schools are required to provide each child with a program that meets that child's needs, an important step towards greater inclusion of students with disabilities.

These rights, however, are not guaranteed in private schools, although many strive for inclusion as best they can. However, this issue is exacerbated when it comes to vouchers. School vouchers are a form of government subsidy given to parents for use toward tuition and related expenses in private and parochial schools as an alternative to attending under-performing public schools. And, vouchers – especially when the funding allocated to these programs comes from the budget for public education – redirects money from public schools (where a majority of all school-age children are enrolled) to private schools (where the public has no control over how those public dollars are spent), while doing nothing to improve public education. Although many school voucher programs ostensibly aim to assist low-income and minority students, a voucher is almost never enough money to help a poor child make the leap to private school. Most proposed voucher programs neither prohibit participating schools from charging tuition and fees in excess of the value of the voucher – which thereby keeps the cost out of the reach of most families – nor require participating schools to accept all applicants.

Furthermore, last Congress, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and Representative Todd Rokita(R-IN-4) introduced the CHOICE Act (S. 1909/H.R. 4773), a bill that would have redirected a significant amount of funds from IDEA to a federal private school voucher. This deeply problematic bill would have endangered the important programs that exist in public schools for people with disabilities, and would require parents and students to sacrifice a number of rights that are guaranteed in public schools to attend private schools. Not only do private school vouchers have overall negative consequences for an extensive, high-quality public school system and compromise the key separation between church and state (because a large number of schools that participate in voucher programs are parochial schools), they clearly jeopardize the rights of students with disabilities.

Jewish tradition teaches that “you shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14), yet many stumbling blocks exist which prevent people with disabilities from accessing full equality and inclusion -- education is just component of it. The Union for Reform Judaism opposes all attempts to channel public funds to private and parochial schools. In a 1961 resolution, the Union resolved: "The devotion of our Union to the separation of religion and state, and our equally deep commitment to public education as a cornerstone of the American democratic process, impel us at this 46th Biennial assembly to reaffirm our opposition to any form of governmental aid to elementary and secondary schools under the supervision or control of any religious denomination or sect -- Catholic, Protestant or Jewish."

We learn from our Jewish values, our commitment to church-state separation and the inclusion of people with disabilities of the importance of advocating for public education, and to not let it be jeopardized by school vouchers. Take action and urge your Members of Congress to take action on this critical issue today!