Since Massachusetts has special education enrollment rates well above the national average, the state’s schools labor under both the high cost of special education services and the burden of lawsuits brought by dissatisfied parents.
No one is happy with the current system and it is time to consider alternatives to how we ensure services for disabled students.
Under the current model, public schools and families agree on a document that outlines what services schools will provide. This document, an Individual Education Plan, is essentially a contract between schools and families. If schools fail to deliver on the services promised in the IEP, families can take their schools to court and force them to comply.
Though it might seem like an IEP backed up by the threat of legal action would be an excellent way to guarantee appropriate services for disabled students, in practice this formal, legalistic process is highly inefficient and often fails to protect special education students while causing excessive paperwork and legal fees for public schools.
But according to a new study by the Manhattan Institute, Florida has adopted a promising fix to the defects of the IEP process by offering disabled students the option of receiving a voucher if they are dissatisfied with their public school.
For the current system to work, families have to be sophisticated enough to demand that all of their children’s needs are fully and clearly addressed in the IEP document. Schools are experienced at writing IEPs and often might seek to minimize the level of expensive services they are required to provide.
Even if the IEP does fully and clearly specify what students need, schools may fail to live up to their obligations. Families can then go to court, but to do so they have to be aware that this legal option is available, have the resources to pursue it against school districts that command far greater resources, and have the stomach to engage in a serious conflict with the same people who are taking care of their children every day.
Clearly, there are good reasons why most families would not be willing to pursue this legal option until their schools’ failure to serve their children adequately became very serious. This means that under the current system schools can get away with providing substandard services as long as their failures aren’t so flagrant that parents are driven to the costly and unpleasant option of a lawsuit. What’s more, lower-income and minority families who may be less aware of their legal options and have fewer resources to devote to a courtroom battle are significantly more likely to be taken advantage of under this model of accountability.
The availability of some free legal advice and the work of advocacy groups does help alleviate the problems that are inherent in the IEP accountability model, but it is clear that the present system is not functioning well.
Schools complain bitterly about the paperwork necessary to avoid lawsuits and the expense of having to defend against them, while the high cost of going to court makes parents feel forced to accept whatever their schools offer. It is a system that only a lawyer could love.
Florida is trying a very promising approach, however, to supplementing the IEP model in a way that gives families another alternative. The McKay Scholarship Program provides families who are dissatisfied with the special education services at their public school the option to either attend a different public school or use a voucher to attend a private school that might better serve their needs.
Rather than having to engage in legal combat to ensure adequate services for their children, parents can simply look for better services elsewhere. Now in its third full year of operation, more than 9,000 students out of nearly 375,000 eligible special education students in Florida are participating in McKay.
The Manhattan Institute study finds that parents in the McKay program are being served better than they had been in public schools. More than 90 percent of McKay parents report being satisfied or very satisfied with various aspects of the education their children receive at private schools, compared to less than a third who were similarly satisfied with their prior public schools.
McKay students enjoy class sizes at private schools that are roughly half as large on average as the 25-student classes they experience in public school, with no additional cost to taxpayers. In addition, McKay students left public-school environments in which nearly half of them were harassed often and nearly a quarter were physically assaulted for their disability, and entered private-school environments where roughly 5 percent were similarly victimized. The McKay program has offered these families an avenue other than legal action for obtaining better services.
And parents do not seem to miss the IEP process. Fewer than a third of the families participating in McKay report that their prior public school provided all of the services required by their IEP. By contrast, almost 90 percent report that the private schools they attend under McKay have delivered on the services they promised to provide.
The IEP was no guarantee of adequate services, while the ability to choose a different school is providing a more effective tool for ensuring that disabled students’ needs are met.
Many families of special education students are satisfied with the services provided by their public schools, but many other families are not satisfied.
Will we continue to require that those dissatisfied families accept whatever they get or sue to improve their situation? Or will we provide those families with the option of pursuing better services elsewhere?
The evidence from Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program suggests that Congress and other states should consider McKay-like models to improve upon the system by which we serve disabled students.