Vouchers for special-ed students

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The second of three.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law governing special education, requires a school system to enter into a legally binding contract that specifies the services it must provide to each individual disabled student. Parents who believe the school system fails to provide these services can seek remedy of that failure through a legal process. But this right is only as meaningful as one’s ability to enforce it. Frustrated parents face the unappealing prospect of engaging in a legal fight with the same people who care for their children each day. Given the psychological and financial difficulty of pursuing the legal path and given how frequently public schools win those disputes, most disgruntled parents come to terms with sub-par services.

But a new way of structuring special education holds the promise of changing this situation. Under special-education voucher programs that now exist in five states, instead of going to court, disabled students can use a voucher to pay for the cost of attending another public school or a private school. Rather than fighting, they can walk out the door and take the money that is spent on them with them.

As we described in this space yesterday, the disabled students who remain in public schools benefit academically from Florida’s special-education voucher program, called the McKay Scholarship. In a new study we found that the quality of special education seems to improve when students gain more options to leave their public school. But these expanded options also benefit the students who choose to leave with a voucher, the public schools from which they leave and the taxpayers.

It is true that private schools are not legally required to provide particular services to disabled students in the same way that public schools are under IDEA. But in reality, no one loses any rights when they use a voucher to attend a private school. If their private school does not serve them well, families can always pursue appropriate services from their assigned public school through the legal system. Families simply gain another mechanism to make their right a reality.

Further, private schools appear more willing to provide necessary services than public schools, even though they are not contractually mandated to do so. Parents of disabled students participating in Florida’s McKay program report that they are almost three times as likely to receive all promised services from their McKay private school as from their previous public school (86 percent vs. 30 percent).

More than 90 percent of parents participating in the McKay program report that they are satisfied or very satisfied, while only about a third of them were similarly satisfied with their previous public school. What is it that they like about their experience? For starters, disabled students participating in McKay benefit from significantly smaller classes when they take a voucher to a private school. On average, their class size drops from 21.8 students in their previous public school to 12.7 students in the private school they attend with a McKay Scholarship. And the rates at which disabled students are bullied for their disability drop from almost half in the public school to about one in twenty in the private school with a voucher.

Even the public schools that students leave benefit. Schools no more relish legal battles with parents than parents do. By giving dissatisfied parents an exit option other than litigation, special-education vouchers reduce the financial and administrative burden on school districts.

Lastly, taxpayers benefit because McKay Scholarships are capped at the amount that the public schools spend on students or private-school tuition, whichever is less. Since the tuition at many private schools is less than the spending on disabled students at public schools, the financial burden on taxpayers is reduced. The average amount of a McKay voucher in Florida is only $7,206, far below the average per-pupil amount spent on a disabled student in the public schools.

The current special-education system is an arrangement that only lawyers could love. It creates rights that can only be enforced in court — if then. It creates conflict between families and schools. It is all about process and not about results. Adding vouchers to the mix changes all of that by giving families an alternative mechanism for getting what they need, reducing costs and conflict, and ensuring better results for all disabled students.

Marcus A. Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

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