Wednesday, June 05, 2002

Special-Ed Vouchers

Today's Washington Times op-ed, by the Lexington Institute's Robert Holland, reports on the timely coincidence between the US Supreme court ruling on school vouchers and the reauthorization of IDEA. Holland summarizes international and domestic evidence that demonstrates that school-choice works better for disabled students:

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."

Florida has had great success with their special-education voucher program. The greatest asset of the Florida program is its sheer simplicity and parent-friendliness. The only requirement for a special-needs child to transfer to a private school is that his parents express dissatisfaction over his progress at meeting the goals of his individualized instructional plan.

Student voucher awards are based on a student’s current per-pupil funding in the public school and range from $4,000 to $20,000, depending on the severity of the child’s disability. One stipulation of the scholarship program is that a student must be enrolled in a public school with a valid IEP for a year before becoming eligible for the voucher program. Average voucher awards are approximately $6,000. The majority of students participate in the $4,000 range. Less than 1 percent are in the high-end voucher range-- but one child at $15,000 can skew figures.

Parents are free to add money to their designated voucher amount in order to buy a higher quality or more specialized education for their child. In fact, many of the more expensive specialized schools use their own private donor pools to help families increase the size of their voucher.

In the program’s first year 105 private schools in 36 of Florida’s 67 districts signed up to enroll more than 900 special education students. This year more than 5000 students are participating in more than 400 private schools. The scholarship program already has 1000 new intentions to participate filed for next year and the notification letter to eligible parents has not gone out. Diane McCain, Director of the “Choice Office” at the Florida Department of Education, estimates that the program could double in participation next year.

The Florida program bypasses much of the costly litigation over a “Free and Appropriate" education. When parents are free to choose the school that best meets their child’s needs—they are less likely to sue the school district for a better placement.

And as Robert Holland so rightly observes, “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.”

The Florida program stands in stark contrast to my earlier post about the New Jersey special education school-contracting fiasco. The main difference in Florida: the parents act as school-monitor on a case-by-case basis, rather than government bureaucrats, who are assigned to oversee vast amounts of tax dollars.

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