Politics & Policy

A Special Plan for Palin

Be an advocate for choice.

Sometimes even the greatest joys bring challenge. And children with special needs inspire a special love. To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message: For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters. I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House. — Governor Sarah Palin

It would be great to have an advocate for special-needs kids in the White House. It would be even better if that advocate endorsed the most promising reform for improving special education — vouchers for disabled students.

While every student with disabilities is entitled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to a free and appropriate education, which sounds great in theory, that right is only as good as the ability to enforce it, which is extremely difficult in practice. We need a mechanism that empowers parents of special-needs kids so that they can make those rights a reality.

The mechanism currently provided by IDEA to ensure that students receive a free and appropriate education is the Individual Education Plan (IEP). Parents of special-needs kids sit down with school officials to negotiate the IEP, which is essentially a contract identifying the set of services and accommodations that schools should provide, and establishing goals for progress.

The difficulty is that schools are very experienced at drawing up these contracts, while parents are usually less savvy in the negotiations. Schools know how to limit their obligations to provide services and lower expectations for progress, while parents are often unaware of the services that state and federal governments are already paying schools to provide for their kids.

But even when parents manage to negotiate for what their children really need, getting the schools to live up to the contract is extremely difficult. It is in the financial interest of schools to under-deliver on the agreement, since in doing so they still receive the extra funding that state and federal governments provide, but save on expenditures. Unless parents can prove that schools acted in bad faith, the worst that can happen to a school that skimps on services is that they can be ordered to provide what they had originally promised. With little downside, schools will often be tempted to take the subsidies and under-deliver on services.

Parents can pursue legal options to compel schools to deliver required services, but the deck is stacked in the schools’ favor. Parents are generally reluctant to get into legal fights with the same people who take care of their kids each day. Litigation is costly and time-consuming. Sometimes students graduate before the case is resolved. And the courts generally give schools the benefit of the doubt. According to Temple University professor Perry Zirkel, who has systematically analyzed education litigation, “school systems still win more often than they lose [and schools] also face fewer court cases than the public imagines.”

Several states have developed a solution: offer disabled students vouchers that they can use to obtain services from private schools if they are dissatisfied with what the public schools have to offer. Special-education vouchers are the fastest growing voucher idea, starting in Florida and spreading to Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, and Utah. With almost 20,000 students, the Florida program, called McKay Scholarships, is the largest voucher program in the United States.

Special-ed vouchers like McKay’s have several benefits. First, they mostly eliminate the need for expensive and difficult litigation that can burden both dissatisfied parents and public schools. If parents believe they are not getting the services their disabled children need, they can take the money being spent on their kids in the public schools and find better services elsewhere. There’s no need to fight — with lawyers hired on both sides — if you can walk.

Second, an evaluation of the McKay program that Greg Forster and I conducted found that families receiving vouchers were significantly more likely to received needed services than in their previous public schools. Only 30.2 percent of participating families said that they had received all services required from their public school, while 86 percent reported their McKay private school provided all promised services. Participating students were victimized far less by other students because of their disabilities in McKay schools. In public schools, 46.8 percent were bothered often and 24.7 percent were physically assaulted, while in McKay private schools 5.3 percent were bothered often and 6 percent were assaulted. Students using the voucher also experienced a drop in average class size from 25.1 students to 12.8 when they switched to a private school. Not surprisingly, parents love the program, with more than 90 percent saying they were satisfied with the school they found with a voucher, compared to less than a third being satisfied with their previous public school.

Third, special-education vouchers don’t just help the students who use them; they also improve the academic performance of disabled students who remain in the public schools. In a study I did with Marcus Winters, we found that the test scores of disabled students remaining in Florida public schools improved as more nearby private schools began participating in the McKay program. That is, as disabled students began to get more options to leave their public schools, those schools became more attentive to their needs and produced better results.

It is important to note that no disabled students lose the right to an appropriate education when special-education vouchers are introduced. Those students can always negotiate an IEP with their local public school and seek remedy in the courts if the schools fail to deliver. Vouchers simply give disabled students another, often more effective, mechanism for ensuring that they get the services they need.

Given Sen. McCain’s strong endorsement of vouchers and Gov. Palin’s commitment to special-needs children, special-ed vouchers could be a major initiative in a McCain administration. And since special education is already a matter of federal responsibility, a nationwide special-ed voucher program is one of the few reforms that a president could pursue without expanding the federal role in education. Even better, because special-ed vouchers are worth no more than the cost of services already provided by public schools, there is no additional burden to taxpayers.

Disabled kids need an advocate in the White House, especially an advocate with a plan that could significantly empower families to obtain services. Gov. Palin may be that advocate and special-ed vouchers could very well be that plan.

Jay P. Greene is the endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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