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New York Daily News


Offer vouchers for special education

December 28, 2008

By Marcus A. Winters

About 13% of public school students in New York State are enrolled in special education. Educating each of them costs taxpayers many thousands of dollars more than it does to educate a regular student. With the financial crisis compelling Gov. Paterson, Mayor Bloomberg and other officials around the state to make cuts that have the least impact on services to which we have become accustomed, now is the time for them to give a special-education voucher program a second look. Aside from offering better educational outcomes, such a program would significantly reduce expenditures.

Contrary to popular belief, tuition charged by private schools, where vouchers can be used, is actually lower than public school per-pupil expenditures. Take Florida, which is home to the nation's first voucher program for disabled students. Under the program, all disabled students are eligible for a voucher that is worth the lesser of the amount the public school would have spent on them or the tuition at a chosen private school. The value of the average voucher for disabled students there is $7,295. Not only is this far less than what the state spends to educate a disabled student in a public school, it is even below the state's much lower average per-pupil cost of educating all students, both disabled and regular enrollment.

In other words, the public system actually saves money when it pays for students to attend private school, and even more money when those students are disabled.

A special education voucher program also saves money by eliminating situations that give rise to lawsuits. Under federal law, if parents believe a district is not fulfilling its obligation to educate their child, they can sue the district for damages equal to the cost of private school tuition. This legal process can be costly both for the parents and the state. With a special education voucher, disgruntled parents could skip the courtroom drama and send their child directly to a private school.

Perhaps the biggest cost savings of a special education voucher program come from its potential to reduce the number of students who are misdiagnosed. Like many other states, New York funds public special education on a per-student basis. This system—often referred to as a "bounty" system—rewards schools for placing low-performing students into special education programs, whether or not they have a true disability. Empirical research has found that eliminating this financial incentive leads to a reduction in the number of students classified as disabled. Under a special education voucher program, such misclassifications could result in the loss of all of a given student's funding if he leaves for a private school.

While the cost savings of such a voucher program are clear, they must not be realized at the expense of kids' education. We still have more to learn about these policies, but the best evidence so far suggests that they are effective. Surveys have established that parents of disabled students who use vouchers are overwhelmingly happier with their private school than they were with the public school their child left. In a recent survey, 92.7% of parents with children using Florida's McKay vouchers reported that they were satisfied with their private school, while only 32.7% of these parents were satisfied with their previous public school. These surveys have also found that the schools disabled students attend using vouchers have safer environments, with less bullying, than the public schools in which they were formerly enrolled. Recent research by my colleague Jay Greene and me has found that Florida public schools have responded to the voucher program by improving the quality of education they provide their special-education students.

When it comes to special education, New York is both paying too much and getting too little. A special education voucher program has the potential not only to help disabled students learn, but also to save scarce state and city dollars.

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