A recent analysis by the Palm Beach Post asserted that Florida’s voucher program for disabled students lures students into private schools that don’t serve their needs. It appeared the day before a state task force met to consider possible changes in the program. The headline bluntly declared: “Vouchers Don’t Help Disabled Students.”
But the Post’s claim is unfounded. A Manhattan Institute study of the program found that participating students had much smaller classes, were victimized less often by other students and in general got services that their parents say were better than what they got in the public schools.
Because of their special needs, disabled students are more likely to lack good educational opportunities in the public school system. The McKay Scholarship Program gives them a voucher equal to the full amount of money that public schools would have spent on them, allowing them to seek out whatever schools will serve them best. With more than 12,000 students participating, it’s one of the nation’s largest voucher programs.
The Post claims that McKay vouchers “don’t help disabled students” because many of the schools participating in the program don’t segregate disabled kids into separate classes. It also claims that McKay schools aren’t serving disabled students well because teachers at many of these schools don’t have special-education certificates from the state and because the schools are allowed to design their own curricula for special-education students rather than having to follow mandates from the state government.
These observations are true, but they don’t come close to justifying the conclusion that McKay schools aren’t helping disabled students. Providing special classes and teacher certificates or a state-mandated curriculum isn’t the same as providing a good education. Private schools offer a lot of things public schools don’t, such as smaller classes and tougher discipline policies.
One difficulty is that for many people, the phrase “disabled students” conjures up images of severely handicapped students who need extraordinary services. In fact, Florida classifies each disabled student in one of five categories based on the severity of his disability, and more than half of McKay students are in the mildest category, roughly reflecting Florida’s disabled student population. This includes students with such diagnoses as learning disabilities and speech impediments.
For these students, things like the personal attention of small classes and protection from bullying might be far more important than having a segregated special-education class with a teacher who has a special certificate. In fact, many parents are concerned about having their children isolated in segregated classes, preferring that they be “mainstreamed” into regular classes.
A recent study by the Manhattan Institute found that students using McKay vouchers received better services in a number of ways. In their previous public schools, their classes averaged 25 students, but in McKay schools, only 13. 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 McKay schools, only 5 percent were bothered often and 6 percent were assaulted.
Parents overwhelmingly report that their McKay schools provided better services than their previous public schools . They also report that their students are making more academic progress - 93 percent were satisfied with their children’s academic progress, compared with 17 percent at public schools. Furthermore, while many private school teachers are not certified for special education, teacher quality also appears to be better at McKay schools; 92 percent of parents were satisfied with the teachers at McKay schools, compared with 46 percent at public schools.
Clearly, vouchers give disabled students a much-needed escape from the rigid and unresponsive special-education bureaucracy in the public school system.