- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2008

The last of three.

With some courage, Sen. John McCain has made school choice a pillar of his presidential campaign’s education platform. However, to date it is unclear what type of school choice policy he might consider as president. Heated opposition from the teacher unions would almost certainly block or subvert any proposal for a national voucher program of the conventional style. Instead, Mr. McCain should consider embracing 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. Altering the federal special-education law in this way overcomes both vested and principled forms of opposition and would dramatically expand school choice without substantially increasing the federal role in education.

Federal spending for the nation’s nearly 7 million disabled students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) currently goes to state school systems based on their special-education enrollments. We could instead redirect this more than $11 billion to parents and allow them to use the money to pay tuition at a public or private school of their choice. No additional taxpayer dollars need be raised and few new federal regulations would be required. In fact, since private-school tuition is routinely lower than public-school per-pupil revenues, we could save millions of taxpayer dollars.

In the previous two days, in this space generously provided by The Washington Times, we have argued that school choice can improve the academic achievement of disabled students and help reform the legalistic burdens of the current IDEA system. We have pointed to evidence, including our new study for the Manhattan Institute, finding that Florida’s voucher program for special-education students improves the academic gains of those who remain in the public schools. But even we social scientists realize that it is not enough for a policy to be effective; it must be politically viable as well. Reforming IDEA to target its dollars into the hands of parents passes this political test.

Voucher programs for disabled students are more politically popular than are universal programs or those constrained to low-income students. Special-education voucher programs have spread to five states in less than a decade at a time when the growth of traditional voucher programs for regular education students has slowed. Another sign of their political appeal is that while other voucher programs face legal challenges from the unions, and courts have thrown some of them out, special-education vouchers have mostly escaped challenge. Teachers’ unions don’t relish the image of dragging disabled kids into courts to compel them to return to public schools that were serving them poorly.

Another important political virtue of special-education vouchers is that they benefit the rich and poor, minority and white students, alike. Voucher programs for low-income students have clienteles with little political power. But special education, like Social Security, touches the lives of Americans of all incomes, creating powerful constituencies for support.

In 2003, we surveyed parents participating in Florida’s special-education voucher program. The demographic profile of families receiving special-education vouchers was roughly representative of all families in Florida. About a quarter of enrolled parents reported that they had a household income above $60,000 and about a third of them had earned at least a college degree. If presented to them properly, there is a natural support for special-education vouchers among this all-important middle-class demographic, many of whom have struggled with the current system themselves.

Finally, once enacted a federal special-education voucher program would have little to fear from the legal challenges that are the bane of statewide voucher programs. Recent court cases against voucher programs are now most often filed when the state has what is known as a Blaine Amendment; amendments present in many state constitutions, which are the product of anti-Catholic sentiment in the 19th century, explicitly banning taxpayer dollars flowing to religious institutions in any way. But a federal program would be immune to such challenges since the U.S. Constitution does not contain such an amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that federal law does not prohibit taxpayer dollars from being spent on religious private school tuitions if that is the uncoerced choice of parents.

The teachers’ unions would almost certainly deter any Democratic nominee from campaigning for such a sensible rethinking of policy and reallocation of resources, so the proposal will probably have to come from the Republican nominee. If Mr. McCain is serious about school choice, he would do well to consider targeting IDEA dollars to parents as part of his education policy platform.

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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