- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Long before Congress passed what is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, parents and policy-makers grappled with the issue of how best to educate children and young adults with special needs. Should these students be taught in isolated environs or should they be mainstreamed? The answers are as disparate today as they were prior to IDEA, but solid research remains a guiding beacon.

Today, America has an estimated 7 million students who are labeled disabled, and a handful of states, including Florida, are employing nontraditional methods to educate such students. Some school systems, like D.C. Public Schools, seemingly drag their feet with IDEA and other laws that mandate children have a right to a free and an appropriate education. As a result, the District and the others find themselves reacting to costly lawsuits and, consequently, wasting millions upon millions of dollars each school year on out-of-state tuition, transportation and court costs that could be put to better use inside classrooms. Florida, on the other hand, began its first-in-the-nation voucher program for students with special needs in 1999. Called the McKay program, it allows the parents of students diagnosed with a disability to receive vouchers that can be leveraged at public and private institutions. The dollar amount of the scholarships is the lesser of the tuition at a private school or the amount the public school would have spent on the student. A new report released today by the Manhattan Institute — “The Effects of Special-Education Vouchers on Public School Achievement: Evidence from Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program” — evaluates Florida’s program and its academic proficiency.

In a three-part series beginning today on our Op-Ed page, the authors of the report, Marcus A. Winters and Jay P. Greene, explain the effects of Florida’s McKay voucher/special education program, and why parents view vouchers and special education as a good match — “more than 90 percent of parents participating in the McKay program report that they are satisfied or very satisfied, while about a third of them were similarly satisfied with their previous public school.” In the third installment that will be published Thursday, the authors look at vouchers and special education through the lens of the federal government and presidential politics, encouraging “a fresh approach to school choice that would allow parents of disabled students to use federal special education dollars in any public or private school they see fit.”

Florida parents are satisfied and learning-disabled students are learning. The Manhattan Institute report adds an important voice to the ongoing school choice-public education debate. We urge lawmakers, policy-makers and school reformers on every level to read it (www.manhattan-institute.org). For the leaders at our home base in Washington, it’s a must read if parents and their special children are ever going to get the special attention they deserve.

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