Wednesday, June 19, 2002

NYT Gets Florida Special Ed Vouchers Wrong

In Today’s New York Times, Richard Rothstein argues that Florida’s special-education voucher program has failed poor disabled children. He writes, “critics suspect that vouchers are really intended as a step toward privatizing education for the benefit of the well-to-do. Florida's special-education program gives plenty of ammunition to those critics.”

He cites as proof of this the fact that Florida parents can add their own money to the voucher to buy a more expensive special-ed program.

Rothstein tells a story of one good private school that can no longer afford to accept students for just the voucher amount. The school will charge learning-disabled students $2,500 more than the voucher amount next year. One child, Logan Marsh, who thrived under the private school program, will no longer be able to afford the tuition. The most telling part of Rothstein’s story was that Logan's mother did not choose to reenroll her child in the public school where he would receive special-education services. Instead, she chose another private school—even though the school did not offer specific special education services. And this is typical of most of the student’s receiving the McKay scholarship. These students and their parents have not been clamoring to return to public special education classes. In fact, the Florida program expects to enroll up to 10,000 students in the scholarship program this fall.

Rothstein makes the claim that only rich students will afford the most expensive specialized services. True. In fact, the richest students bypass public education and go directly to expensive private schools. He overlooks the fact that many private schools have set up their own charity programs to subsidize students who cannot pay the full tuition amount. And simple economics tells us that any one particular private school will not be around for long if it prices all of its potential voucher students out of the school. Especially since there are now 400 private schools in Florida competing for the 5,000 special-ed voucher students. The 400 schools represent a healthy mixture of very specialized schools designed to handle specific disabilities such as the “Center for Dyslexia” or the “School for Autism” as well as traditional private schools with good environments, small class sizes, or other characteristics parents might find desirable. Parents have a wide array of choices from full-inclusion models to schools that serve a very specific type of disability.

Rothstein also makes the faulty claim that “private schools accepting those students were not required to monitor their progress ever again. Indeed, private schools with voucher students did not have to offer any special-education services at all.” What Richard really means is that the child’s progress did not have to be reported to the public school and that, now, the parent was responsible for monitoring his own child’s progress. And in Rothstein’s Logan Marsh story, he proves that, at least in the case of this particular child, the parent was very capable of evaluating the progress her child was making in the private school.

With 5,000 participants, I have to wonder if that was the worst story that Richard Rothstein could come up with to show that the Florida program is failing. The McKay scholarship program cannot be evaluated by telling a few stories. The actual demographic data and the parents’ school choices must be analyzed. And the fact that some higher-income students may pay more to subsidize their school voucher should not stop lower-income students from enrolling in less-expensive private schools that are still much better than the public school special-ed program.

Finally, it is unclear to me why Rothstein considers letting any special education child participate in the voucher program a "compromise in program integrity." Instead, by opening the program to every special-education child, it ensures that all special education children can participate--not just those children who have parents that are savvy enough to "prove" that the public special-education program is not meeting their child's needs.

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