Vouchers for disabled students

Special education vouchers would enable parents of disabled students to shop for the services their child needs, writes Jay P. Greene in City Journal. Currently, parents have to deal with a system that promises services but often fails to deliver.  Some become aggressive advocates for their children; most accept what they get.

Every student identified as disabled could get a voucher worth no more money than the public schools would spend to educate that child (with more severely disabled students receiving more generous vouchers). Students could then use the vouchers to attend private school if they wanted. No one would have to use the vouchers, and students choosing to remain in public schools would retain all the rights they already have there. Disabled students would simply gain a mechanism — a market mechanism — to help them make their rights a reality.

Vouchers could save money, since private schools tend to be cheaper than public schools.

In Florida, for instance, where a special-ed voucher program is already operating, the average cost of a voucher for disabled students is $7,206—far below what taxpayers spend for the average special-ed student in public school.

Second, vouchers reduce the public schools’ tendency to move ever more students into special education, including many who aren’t in fact disabled but are disruptive or just struggling academically. . . .  schools may think twice about overidentifying disabilities for financial reasons if, every time they do so, they risk losing students and all their funding to private schools.

“Florida public schools have indeed become somewhat more reluctant to classify students as disabled with the increased availability of vouchers,” writes Greene, who studied the Florida system with Marcus Winters. The found Florida students are more likely to receive appropriate services in private schools and are less likely to be bullied.

The voucher program serves a representative distribution of disabled students, so that students with more severe disabilities, as well as students from low-income or minority backgrounds, can find what they need in private schools, just as their more advantaged counterparts can. . . . Finally, the public schools feel some competitive pressure to improve their own services for disabled students, even as they become more restrained in categorizing students as disabled. In fact, Winters and I found that achievement levels for disabled students remaining in the public schools improved significantly when those students had more options to leave.

Georgia, Ohio and Utah are using special-ed vouchers as well.

Vouchers for low-income students also could save inner-city Catholic schools, which offer an alternative to black and Hispanic students, writes Patrick J. McCloskey, author of The Street Stops Here. These schools have been closing, unable to cover their costs with donations or tuition.

(Vouchers) save money, too, since the public school system spends about $20,000 annually on each student, while the Catholic schools achieve their superior results for about $5,500 per urban elementary school student and $8,500 per high schooler. (An adequate voucher would cost slightly more, say $6,500 for elementary school and $9,500 for high school students, to include funding for remedial education for many current public schoolers.)

Of course,  teachers’ unions would fight hard against vouchers.

About Joanne


  1. Tracy W says:

    After reading Margo/Mom’s stories of struggles for her son, and other similar stories by other parents of variously-disabled children, I can see the merit here in a structural reform that gives schools a reason to want these kids.

  2. I’d like to see a structural reform that allows ALL kids to have vouchers. Non-disabled kids of all types and stripes deserve to have their needs met also. No school can possibly meet the needs of all kids; even siblings often have very different needs. The current one-size-fits-all format doesn’t work and should be abandoned.

  3. There are so many contradictions in this piece, it is hard to know where to start. The Catholic schools with their “superior results” for less money are closing because they can’t cover their costs? This is probably because they don’t have the free nun labor anymore, but does that mean the public needs to subsidize them with a voucher bailout? Really, they are NOT teaching kids for less — they’re eating up their endowments and going out of business.

    The private schools around here that specialize in disabled students (we have three or four) are every bit as expensive as the top tier private schools. I find it hard to imagine the voucher is going to cover that. For example, my district spends about $7K per pupil. Our tuition for out-of-district students is about $10K (I have this tuition waived for my kids as a district employee — but we do have tuition paying students in our public school, as odd as that sounds). The local private schools that serve disabled students — and they do it very well, btw — all charge upwards of $15K per year in tuition. So, if we sent that $7K to the private school, that’s still less than 50% of the bill and probably a huge bargain for the tax base.

    Lastly, the public schools, by law, have to provide special ed services to students in private schools (a class made up of kids from the local parochial schools actually meets in my room after school most years). So is the voucher money a way of washing the public school’s hands of these kids?

    I think vouchers for sped kids would be seen as a great deal by school boards.

  4. Margo/Mom says:

    What LS points out has merit. I would point out, however, that a voucher for a kid with special needs ought not be based on the average per pupil cost, but on the cost of educating that particular pupil. There are some areas where the public schools would really be better of in contracting for a kid’s education at a private school that specializes (I think that this is frequently the case with extreme autism) than trying to reinvent the wheel on an individual basis. Actually, the law (IDEA) already provides for this, but the district has to agree and there are lots of economic considerations and egos that frequently get in the way.

    I believe that there is a limited role for a smallish number of charter and voucher type opportunities related to public education for both innovation and meeting niche needs. But, as LS points out, when dealing with a population that is easily overlooked, the “marketplace” may not always provide the best results. Without the intervening hand of government, those with less clout have always been doomed to the left-overs. It hasn’t been too many years since students with disabilities were systematically denied any public education at all.

  5. Cardinal Fang says:

    “Second, vouchers reduce the public schools’ tendency to move ever more students into special education, including many who aren’t in fact disabled but are disruptive or just struggling academically….”

    Do we know that schools actually have this tendency? I haven’t seen statistics about it, but anecdotally, everyone I’ve ever known or known of who had a child with a disability in public school reported that the school was reluctant to test the child, reluctant to offer any services, and reluctant to follow an IEP once one was established.

    My sister-in-law, a second-grade teacher in a low-income public school, says it took almost an entire school year to get a couple of her obviously learning disabled kids classified so they could receive services. Meanwhile, the kids wasted the year unable to keep up, not learning to read, and in fact learning almost nothing.

  6. Our school has a small number of extremely difficult kids (academic) who would have been sent to outside programs because of their needs. These programs were hugely expensive.

    Instead, we hired an extra teacher, set up specialized classes for them, and by keeping them in-house, saved a bunch of money and kept them all in the school – with their friends, but not in classes with them all day. Some classes were simply modified, others were created to meet their specific needs. Everyone was happy and the kids had a great and successful year.

    In my mind, that’s the way to go.

    Vouchers may be the saving grace for inner-city schools, but I can see the program having a couple major problems. First, the private options are more expensive or not available (the Catholic schools are folding fast). I can’t see the voucher being enough.

    I’m not entirely convinced that private schools are, by definition, better than public schools. I would support vouchers if they allowed kids to attend another school that had been measured in the same way as the sending school, but too often we test the public school and not the private one and just assume that the private one is better.

    In every public school, there are good teachers and bad ones, good students and bad ones. Private schools can choose not to accept the bad ones, very often that’s the only measurable difference. Putting that voucher-kid in the private school means he gets a different “luck of the draw.”

    A big concern for the voucher proponents should be, “If the public school can’t handle this kid or isn’t doing it well, why should the private school take that chance? Unless he plays football, of course.” What do you do if the private school says “No?”

    I also think that many times the impetus for wanting to switch is that the local school “doesn’t see what is truly wrong.” If the local school doesn’t label your kid the same way you think he should be labeled, then your voucher will reflect that inappropriate placement.

    Finally, I am a teacher (both public and private), but I am also a taxpayer. I do not want to pay taxes to some private school. I can go to local school board meetings and effect the way that school is run but I have no representation in the private sector. The “customers” are the taxpayers, not the parents.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t mind seeing another city try vouchers. Just because previous such programs failed and were reduced or eliminated doesn’t mean that DC can’t be the exception. Good Luck.

  7. One problem that I could see with this approach is that it might become even more difficult for kids with special needs to be identified. If the schools have to give a voucher to sped kids….all the more reason not to identify them.

  8. Tracy W says:

    But, as LS points out, when dealing with a population that is easily overlooked, the “marketplace” may not always provide the best results. Without the intervening hand of government, those with less clout have always been doomed to the left-overs.

    Umm, those with less clout are doomed to the left-overs also with the intervening hand of government. That’s the result of the definition of clout – the more you have the more you get relatively, so the less you have the less you get relatively.

    The NZ government shows a remarkable tendency to prefer to spend health money on hip operations for elderly voters at the expense of glue-ear testing for school students from low SES backgrounds. Probably because low-income parents who are struggling to raise a family are less likely to vote than the retired.

    What gets me is the struggles of you, and other parents of disabled children, to get school staff to just following the existing laws. I don’t see any reason to believe that teachers and school administrators are remarkably more evil people than the general population, so these stories imply to me that the incentives with the current set up are poor.

  9. Margo/Mom says:

    Tracy W–I would wholeheartedly agree that the problem is more with the “set up” than any individual teacher. I certainly have great frustrations with teachers who cannot see that and “take it personally,” but who also do not see or take advantage of any individual, or particularly group opportunities to impact the system. As they say, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Things are bad, but they could be better. Many things could be better without added cost or extra personnel.

    I have seen some changes in incentivization across the decades. At one point, the incentive was to get troublesome kids “identified” so that they could be moved out of the classroom and put somewhere else. Identification also got a boost from early accountability testing because the scores of kids with disabilities were not required to “count” along with those of the rest of the students (unless a troublesome parent insisted that it be–and got the right box on the IEP checked off). Now, I would suppose that there is some incentive to keep the numbers of identified kids on the low side so that they don’t constitute an AYP group. Although the financial incentive (access to additional dollars for services) has pretty much remained constant.

    But–I also see an unfortunate tendancy to take some of these incentives and run with them, just as there are schools that have decided to stop teaching and start drilling (always with some dim sense that someone, somewhere is forcing this on them). I would classify this not as a systemic or organizational issue as much as a symptom of dysfunction. It is more of a passive/aggressive reaction to some sense of powerlessness. This is the stuff that isn’t going to be solved by any new incentives or reorganizations. This is the kind of malaise that really needs to be confronted directly and with some serious accountability for actions. If sprinkling a few vouchers in can spur the process, all the better.