A new front is being opened in Colorado’s ongoing fight over school vouchers. State Rep. Nancy Spence is planning to introduce a bill this year that will give vouchers to the state’s disabled students. This will give them a much-needed escape from the notoriously rigid and unresponsive special education bureaucracy in the public school system, allowing them to seek better services elsewhere.
The plan is inspired by Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program, which provides a voucher to any disabled student in Florida public schools.
With over 12,000 students participating, the McKay program is one of the nation’s largest voucher programs. And since it’s the only existing voucher program for disabled students, Colorado should carefully examine Mc- Kay’s track record when considering Spence’s proposal.
A recent study by the Manhattan Institute found that students using McKay vouchers received better services in a number of ways. One of the most dramatic advantages they received was smaller classes: in their previous public schools their classes averaged 25 students, but their classes averaged only 13 students in voucher schools. For the majority of disabled students who have mild diagnoses like learning disabilities or speech impediments, the personal attention of small classes can make a big difference in their academic progress.
Another very important service private schools are providing to special education voucher participants is protection from bullying. In their previous public schools 47 percent were bothered often by other students because of their disabilities and 25 percent were physically assaulted, while in voucher schools only 5 percent were bothered often and 6 percent were assaulted.
Disabled students are particularly vulnerable to victimization by their peers; private schools can enact tougher discipline policies that allow them to protect disabled students.
Special education voucher participants also saw a drop in behavior problems at school. Of participating students, 40 percent had behavior problems at their previous public schools, but only 19 percent had behavior problems at voucher schools. Private schools seem to be helping disabled students learn to improve their behavior.
Participating parents overwhelmingly report that they get better services in their voucher schools than in their previous public schools.
Only 24 percent had been satisfied with the services addressing their children’s disabilities at their public schools, while 89 percent were satisfied at voucher schools.
They also report that their students make better academic progress.
While 17 percent were satisfied with their children’s academic progress at public schools, 93 percent were satisfied with their academic progress at voucher schools.
Overall, 93 percent of parents whose students are using special education vouchers say they’re satisfied with their voucher schools. Only 33 percent say that they were satisfied with the public schools their children were in before they participated in the voucher program.
Not only do current participants report better services and higher satisfaction with their voucher schools, but former participants do too. If anyone were going to report having had a worse experience in voucher schools, you would expect it to be people who have left the program, but on almost every measurement former participants in the special education voucher program got superior services at private schools. In fact, 91 percent of former participants say the special education voucher program should continue to be available for those who wish to use it.
This evidence clearly shows that allowing disabled students to use vouchers has made a difference in the lives of thousands of Florida children by giving them an alternative to the unresponsive special education bureaucracy.
Colorado’s disabled students will be grateful if the state learns from Florida’s experience.