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Forbes.com

 

Special-Education Stigmatization

August 18, 2009

By Marcus A. Winters, Jay P. Greene

PRINTER FRIENDLY

School vouchers may be the best way to curb abuse of public funds.

Federal law first insisted in 1975 that public schools educate disabled students. Since then, the portion of students receiving special education services has increased 64%. Today, 13.5% of all public school students have been diagnosed with a disability. Special education, it turns out, is no longer particularly special at all.

Taxpayers pay a substantial price for the growth in special education. In New York state, for instance, in 2007, the average special education student cost $14,413 more to educate than a regular-enrollment student.

What has produced such rapid growth in the percentage of American students identified as disabled? Don’t worry--it’s not “something in the water.”

Better means of identification explain part of special education’s expansion. However, a growing body of research points to a less benign cause: Schools see a financial incentive to designate low-achieving students as disabled, while they may not actually be disabled at all.

Multiple studies have found that the rate of growth in special education is higher in areas where schools receive additional resources for each student diagnosed (as compared with areas where funding in based on historical enrollments). For instance, University of California economist Julie Berry Cullen found that financial incentives explain up to 40% of Texas’ increase in special education enrollment in the early 1990s.

One hint that incentives have inflated diagnoses is that the vast majority of the increase in special education services has occurred in the category known as Specific Learning Disability. SLD is the most vulnerable to over-diagnosis because it is the mildest and most subjectively diagnosed category. One in 20 public school students today has been diagnosed as having a SLD, and the category now accounts for 40% of special education students.

While cases of SLD and the category that includes attention disorders have skyrocketed since 1975, diagnoses in all other types of disabilities have hardly budged. In fact, fewer students today suffer from some severe disabilities--mental retardation, hearing and orthopedic impairments--than was the case 30 years ago. Despite its much-discussed increase, autism currently affects less than 0.5% of public school students.

In a new study for the Manhattan Institute, we show how special education vouchers can slow unnecessary growth in special education. Voucher programs allow disabled students to pay private school tuition using taxpayer dollars. Ideally, the size of the voucher is set to be the lesser of the tuition a student would pay for the private school or the amount the public school would have spent to educate the student. Florida’s special education voucher program, the first and by far the largest, now serves 21,000 disabled students throughout the state.

Vouchers address the financial incentive to over-diagnose learning disabilities by placing the entirety of a diagnosed student’s per-pupil funding in jeopardy. A school that wants to game the system must think twice about identifying a marginal student because the diagnosis gives him the power to walk out of the school.

We find evidence that schools with greater exposure to Florida’s special education voucher program disproportionately slowed the rate at which they identify students as having an SLD. The addition of a private school that is willing to accept the voucher as tuition within a five-mile radius of the public school--thus making it accessible to nearby parents--decreases the probability that a student in that school is identified as having an SLD. For a public school surrounded by the average number of participating private schools in 2006, the program reduced by about 15% the probability that a fourth- through sixth-grade student was newly diagnosed as SLD.

Other than the changes in the school’s financial incentives, there is no particular reason a nearby private school filling out the paperwork to make it eligible to receive vouchers should be related to whether a child is placed in special education.

Taxpayers are the big winners here. By reducing the growth in special education, vouchers reduce the costs of paying for additional services for misdiagnosed students. Further, private schools educate disabled students for far less money than do public schools. Last year, the average special education voucher in Florida cost $7,500--that’s less than the state pays to educate a regular-enrollment student.

Special education vouchers are one of those rare policies that benefit everyone acting in good faith. Parents get to send their kids to their chosen school; taxpayers save money. Some kids are struggling, not because of any processing problem in their brain, but because their school stigmatizes them with a disability label. Expanding voucher programs to other states will help end these unnecessary and fiscally driven struggles.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/2009/08/18/special-education-vouchers-opinions-contributors-marcus-winters-jay-greene.html

 

 
 
 

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