Academic journal article Policy Review

Sending Public School Students to Private Schools

Academic journal article Policy Review

Sending Public School Students to Private Schools

Article excerpt

The untold story of special education

One of the most common arguments against school choice is that it will create a system of privilege that prefers only the easiest students to teach. Opponents of vouchers argue that because public schools are meant to serve children of all backgrounds-including children with disabilities- school choice promises only to harm these students as scarce resources are siphoned off to private schools. If vouchers were adopted on a large scale, so these people claim, the neediest students would only be left behind to suffer neglect in crumbling, deserted schools.

Upon greater scrutiny, this oft-repeated scenario does not hold up. For years, many students with the worst disabilities have attended private schools at partial or even full public expense. Far from abandoning the needs of special education students, the private sector is supplying what the public school system has failed to provide.

More specifically, public school districts currently foot the bill for more than 100,000 special education students attending private schools at an estimated cost of $2 billion to taxpayers, according to U.S. Department of Education figures and industry estimates. In most of these cases, public schools have come to rely on specialized private schools to educate their toughest disability cases, when doing it themselves would be prohibitively expensive.

"A voucher isn't really the right analogy," says Mike Petrilli, program director of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which supports education reform efforts from a conservative perspective. "It's really closer to contracting, like the Edison Project," the for-profit school management company that manages more than 50 public and charter schools across the nation. "But it makes a lot of sense to contract out this function to a company that can pool its resources."

Petrilli is right. The current set-up can't be called a voucher system, because public school districts are occasionally compelled by the courts to send their students to these schools-whether because of negligence, incompetence, or some other reason. But more importantly, public school officials serve as the gatekeepers during the placement process, such that most parents don't really ever get to make an unencumbered "choice" for their child to attend one of these schools. Of course, some parents with savvy attorneys may be able to swing a private school placement through more aggressive arm-twisting, but many less wealthy parents aren't aware they can so affect the process.

But these differences aside, one important similarity between private special education placements and a larger system of school choice cannot be easily dismissed: school districts have made a market-based decision to contract with these schools because they provide specialized services that public schools cannot easily replicate on their own.

Today, the private special education sector includes more than 3,600 outside providers that educate many of the nation's most difficult disability cases, including large numbers of students with serious emotional disturbances and the more intractable learning disabilities. These schools include both day and residential institutions, some of which operate in a hospital-like setting.

Put in perspective, however, these 100,000 students still amount to a relatively small slice of the large special education population nationally-only about 1.8 percent of the 5.6 million special education students who are mostly served in public schools. Department of Education figures show that 61,608 students attend private special education schools at full public expense, while 65,960 disabled students attend private schools through partial public support. Although perhaps few in number, this small percentage of students consumes 7.3 percent of the $32.6 billion that the Center for Special Education Finance says is spent annually by federal, state, and local governments on special education. …

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