- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2002

It may be a fortunate coincidence that the U.S. Supreme Court will be ruling on the constitutionality of school vouchers later this month just as Capitol Hill ponders changes in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that has shaped special education for a quarter-century.

If a majority of the high court finds no problem with low-income Cleveland parents using their state-funded vouchers to attend religious schools, the teacher unions and other massive resisters of education reform no doubt will revert to one of their favorite scare tactics.

Already anti-choice figures like Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, have contended that vouchers will result in private schools skimming the best students, with the public schools thereby becoming dumping grounds for the disabled, hyperactive, delinquent or otherwise hard-to-teach.

However, quite to the contrary, there is persuasive evidence from 22 nations that when vouchers have made choice truly universal, families of special-needs children are among the biggest beneficiaries. Lewis M. Andrews found in an 18-month study of the nations that aid parents in sending their children to private schools that special-education children tend to thrive "to an extent not even imagined by American educators."

In fact, Mr. Andrews added, "The more American parents of learning-disabled children become knowledgeable about the benefits of school choice around the world, the more the advocates of the status quo may regret ever trying to exploit the issue of special education in the first place."

Mr. Andrews, executive director of the Hartford-based Yankee Institute, did a detailed analysis of six countries: Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. Each nation embraces school choice as national policy to one degree or the other, but provisions vary for special education.

The nation with the deepest and longest commitment to unfettered choice is Denmark. There, political support for private-school choice dates back to 1899, and special-needs families are fully included. The Danish Education Ministry allows public subsidies to follow a disabled child to the school of the parents' choice. The state also makes extra grants for additional help, such as after-school tutoring.

As a consequence, more than 99 percent of Denmark's 80,000 learning-disabled children are educated side-by-side with so-called mainstream children, an ideal known as "inclusion." Only seventh-tenths of 1 percent are consigned to institutions. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has lauded Denmark's free-choice approach as a model for the world.

The Netherlands is one nation that learned from the folly of having choice for "normal" students alongside zero choice for those in special education.

Public funding of parental choice became national policy in the Netherlands in 1917; today, approximately two-thirds of elementary and secondary children attend private schools. However, the Dutch maintained separate school systems for educating children according to their particular learning disability, and began to notice a disturbing increase in the numbers of pupils labeled as "disabled," a possible sign of bureaucratic empire-building.

In 1990, the Dutch adopted a "Going to School Together Policy," that gave parents of disabled children the right to choose between an ordinary or a special school. As a result, Mr. Andrews found, the Dutch education system is winning support from all political quarters, especially the advocates of increased inclusion. The system has whittled its 14 separate systems for the disabled down to just four.

If the Supreme Court creates momentum for vouchers, special education kids in the U.S.A. could be among the first to benefit. Washington policymakers are considering letting states opt out of special-ed red tape if they will convert aid to parental-choice vouchers.

Florida furnishes domestic evidence that choice serves the disabled well.

Under the 2-year-old McKay Scholarship Program, parents of any special-needs child in Florida can receive their subsidy in the form of a voucher and use it to place the child in a school of the family's choosing. Already, more than 300 private schools are helping more than 4,000 special-needs children in Florida, thanks to McKay vouchers.

Vouchers could have another benefit: They could be a powerful disincentive for public schools to slap labels on kids. Overlabeling could provoke an exodus of students and public funds from the system. Education Secretary Rod Paige has said that as many as one-half of children in special education may be there wrongly because schools failed to teach them basic skills like reading and then stuck them with a hard-to-remove label.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.

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