Special Rules for Special Needs

by John J. Miller on June 30, 2009

in Politics

  • SumoMe

October 20, 2008

Could learning-disabled kids lead the way to market-based education reform?


Although Sarah Palin’s GOP- convention address was full of partisan zingers, one of its most memorable passages was anything but pit-bullish. It touched gently on her infant boy’s Down syndrome: “To the families of special-needs children all across the 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.”

Palin didn’t elaborate. It wasn’t necessary: The words humanized her before an audience that was hearing her voice for the first time. Yet her promise to promote the interests of special-needs children holds the potential to do more than target sympathy voters. It puts her in position to become the patron mother of one of the most hopeful developments in conservative education reform: the marriage of special education and school choice.

If this emerging movement has a patron father, he’s John McKay, a now-retired Florida legislator whose daughter was diagnosed with learning disabilities. “I tried public schools, private schools, tutoring — everything I could think of,” he says. Ultimately, he sent her to an expensive boarding school about a hundred miles away. He recalls: “I started to think that if parents banded together, we could hire a teacher and keep our kids at home.”

In the mid-1990s McKay, a Republican state senator, approached Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, with the idea of creating state-funded scholarships for special-needs children — i.e., school vouchers for the learning-disabled. Chiles said he was opposed to school choice but didn’t immediately dismiss McKay’s suggestion. Still, it took the election of Jeb Bush as governor in 1998 to make it a reality. “He asked me to sponsor his education bill and I agreed on the condition that we start a pilot program for special-needs kids in Sarasota County,” says McKay.

The pilot program was established in 1999. It quickly grew into an official policy for the whole state. Today, every special-needs child in Florida is eligible for a McKay Scholarship. The value varies depending on circumstances, but averages more than $7,000. Parents can use it at either public or private schools. Last year, almost 20,000 students used McKay Scholarships, and their numbers are bound to rise.

This success stands in sharp contrast to other school-choice initiatives. So far, efforts to pass universal voucher programs have been defeated or struck down in every state where they’ve been tried, due in large measure to the fierce hostility of well-heeled teachers’ unions. Last year, voters in right-of-center Utah overwhelmingly rejected a measure passed by the legislature to create what would have been the country’s most ambitious school-choice plan.

Conservatives have long appreciated the political challenge of school choice, which is one of the reasons they’ve touted small-bore voucher programs that concentrate on low-income children in cities such as Milwaukee and Cleveland. This focus made sense from a policy standpoint because poor kids suffer most at the hands of failing public schools. Even so, these well-intentioned efforts haven’t exactly sparked a revolution in urban education. Rather than enjoying a growth spurt, they’re on the brink of a painful reversal: Congressional Democrats are poised to wipe out a federally funded school-choice program in Washington, D.C. (though scholarship schemes funded through tax credits, as Robert VerBruggen writes elsewhere in this issue, are flourishing).

Yet mental disabilities strike across class lines and can affect any family, including that of a presidential running mate. Several years ago, Ohio state representative Jon Peterson became involved in the issue for the same reason as John McKay: He has a special-needs daughter. In his case, the girl is autistic. “It put me in touch with a community of people who saw that many public schools weren’t doing as well as they could,” he says. “When I read about the McKay Scholarships in Florida, the answer just jumped off the page.”

Ohio went on to let parents of autistic children use state funds to pay for private-school tuition. Last year, Peterson, a Republican, tried to expand the program to include all special-needs kids. The legislature approved the bill, but Gov. Ted Strickland blocked it with his line-item veto. “We’ll be back,” says Peterson. “Free choice of provider is a core principle of the disability-rights movement, and it should include education.”

This simple standard has helped win over skeptics. “A lot of teachers weren’t too happy with McKay Scholarships when they were introduced,” says Lynette Estrada, a special-needs teacher in Miami. “We were frightened of them.” Then her autistic son had a rotten experience at the public school where Estrada works: “It wasn’t meeting his needs, the students bullied him, the classes were too large — there were a lot of problems.” So she looked into a McKay Scholarship, got one, and sent her son to a private school. “He’s doing well there,” says Estrada. “It goes to show that one-size-fits-all isn’t the best approach.”

Research suggests that Estrada’s satisfaction with the McKay Scholarship is typical. “That’s what market accountability delivers,” says Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas, who has studied McKay Scholarships more closely than anybody else. He says that McKay parents are far more likely to report that they’re receiving the services promised for their children. “They’re happier, their kids are abused less, and the class sizes are smaller,” adds Greene.

A common argument against school choice is that private competitors could skim the public schools’ best students and leave behind the hard cases. In April, Greene and co-author Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute demonstrated that McKay Scholarships actually have had the opposite effect. As private-school options became available, students who qualified for vouchers but remained in public schools saw their test scores improve, presumably because increased competition led to better performance, better use of public-school resources, or both. “Having zero effect on public schools would be a positive outcome,” says Winters. “This is even better.”

In recent years, the number of special-needs schoolchildren in America has risen to 7 million — about 14 percent of the total, up from 8 percent in 1977, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some of the growth has come from better identification, and the stigma of disability also has faded: Kids are no longer labeled “retarded,” but rather described as having “special needs.” Money may have fueled most of the expansion, however, because schools often receive extra cash for learning-disabled students, so they have a financial incentive to classify children that way. Sometimes kids whose only handicap is having fallen behind in their academic performance are slotted into special-needs classrooms.

Whatever the causes of the increase, school choice offers an attractive strategy for addressing it. The McKay Scholarships deliver a savings to taxpayers because in many cases the vouchers are worth less than what the public schools would spend on the kids.

The Alliance for School Choice says that legislators in 22 states have offered school-choice bills for special-needs kids. In addition to Florida and Ohio, three states have enacted laws. Arizona and Utah have programs with tight budgetary caps, but last year Georgia passed a law without financial restrictions. This means that the Peach State probably will see the same explosive growth in special-ed vouchers as the Sunshine State. Entrepreneurs are already moving in. Center Academy, a for-profit company that runs schools for disabled students in Florida, just opened its first in Georgia. “We hope to have four or five more,” says vice president Steve Hicks. Others are sure to join them.

Whereas close personal encounters with disability motivated school-choice laws in Florida and Ohio, this wasn’t the case in Georgia. “I’ve always seen school choice as a solution for our education woes,” says David Casas, a Republican state representative who is also a high-school teacher. “But the debate on school choice is always so negative because the attacks by teacher unions have been effective. We had to look for different angles.”

For Casas and others, concentrating on special-needs students was an incremental step on the way to a larger goal. “We got support for this that we probably wouldn’t get for a broader form of school choice,” says Eric Johnson, a Republican state senator. The liberal editorial page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for instance, endorsed the legislation. The success of that effort served as a springboard for another accomplishment. Earlier this year, Johnson and Casas pushed through a tax credit, worth up to $50 million, for individual and business donations to non-profit groups that fund tuition scholarships. Next year, they may go for it all and propose a universal voucher plan.

They’ll face tough opposition. So will imitators who want to create special-needs scholarships in other states. Until now, the teachers’ unions haven’t put up much of a fight against school choice for learning-disabled students. Who wants to go head to head with families that so obviously deserve compassion? At this point, however, what the school-choice movement sees as a major opportunity, the unions regard as a serious threat.

With the right kind of leadership, the battle could move to Washington. The federal government currently spends about $11 billion on special-needs students. “Someone should propose voucherizing these funds,” says Scott Jensen, a consultant with the Alliance for School Choice.

It sounds like a cause that a special-needs advocate in the White House might wish to adopt — and a political fight that a pit bull would savor.

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