Vouchers and Special Education; Florida Program Makes the Grade

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 29, 2008 | Go to article overview

Vouchers and Special Education; Florida Program Makes the Grade


Byline: Marcus A. Winters and Jay P. Greene, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The first of three.

Special education has grown dramatically over the last two decades and shows no signs of slowing. To date, about 14 percent of public school students have been diagnosed with a disability and receive special education services. In response to the disappointing educational experiences of these students, five states have now adopted voucher programs specifically tailored to disabled students. In a new study for the Manhattan Institute, we find evidence that Florida's special-education voucher program has improved the education that the public schools provide to the disabled students who remain in the public schools.

The first of its kind, the McKay program has offered vouchers to any disabled student in a Florida public school since 1999. Students can use these scholarships to pay tuition at any public or private school that is willing to admit them. The generous voucher is worth the lesser of the tuition at a private school or the amount that the public school would have spent on the child if he remained in public school. The McKay program has grown rapidly and with 18,273 participants is currently the largest school voucher program in the United States.

Most agree that vouchers probably help those students who use them. In fact, several randomized field trials - the "gold standard" of social science research - have found that voucher students benefit when they use them to attend a private school of their choice. Rather, the debate over school choice for both regular enrollment and disabled students now centers on the impact it has on the public school system. Many people worry that vouchers harm public schools by depriving them of resources. Others contend that vouchers might improve public schools by forcing them to compete for students.

In the first quantitative evaluation of a voucher program for disabled students of which we are aware, we found that those students with relatively mild disabilities -the vast majority of special-education students in the state and across the nation - made larger academic gains when the number of private options nearby increased. Students with more severe disabilities were neither helped not harmed by the addition of McKay scholarship-receiving private schools near their public school.

Students diagnosed with the mildest form of disability, known as a Specific Learning Disability (SLD), benefited the most from the availability of school choice. …

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