Opening the door to educational snake oil

Opening the door to educational snake oil

- in Weekly Briefing

Why vouchers are not the solution for kids with special needs

It sometimes proves frustrating to a lot of people – many of them with legitimate complaints – but there are good reasons that the United States has a Food and Drug Administration. At the heart of the matter is the alternative; without the FDA, Americans would be (and once were) victimized by an endless collection of shysters promising all sorts of phony miracle cures and therapies. Though some might occasionally find a genuine cure on their own – particularly the wealthy – most people would be much worse off.

So what does this have to do with the seemingly unrelated field of special education? Well, a lot actually.

Voucher legislation

Right now as they race to complete the 2011 legislative session, conservative lawmakers are rushing through a bill that would provide a tax credit (i.e. a voucher) of up to $6,000 per year to parents of a child with a disability if they choose to send him or her to a private school.

An issue brief from the North Carolina School Boards Association explains part of why this is bad idea:

“Both vouchers and tax credits divert attention, commitment, and public dollars from public schools to private schools. If public schools are inadequate the state should invest in improving those services rather than create an incentive for students to leave public schools. In fact, vouchers and tuition tax credit programs waste taxpayer money….

If such a program were enacted for special needs students, federal and state special education funds could be lost for the school district.  School districts could see significant financial losses and ability to provide services within the special needs programs dependent upon the numbers and types of special education students who would the leave the school district under such a program.  This is because North Carolina does not differentiate its appropriations by exceptionality within the special education funds to school districts.”

While proponents attempt to argue that schools will actually be left with a net surplus because the proposed voucher is slightly less than what the state supposedly spends on a child in a public school, this is a specious argument. Estimates place the average number of children who would take advantage of the voucher at a relatively low number per school – at least initially. But, of course, a school that loses, say three or four students, won’t really be spending any less – its “overhead” will remain the same. The school won’t cost any less to run. All that will be reduced is its already inadequate allotment from the state.

But what about the students themselves and the FDA analogy?

Proponents of vouchers for special needs kids do make some valid points. It’s true that many students with disabilities do not always receive all of the services they need and deserve in the public schools. But, of course, no public institution is perfect – especially if it’s chronically underfunded like the K-12 education system. The same reality applies to non-special needs kids too.

But consider what those who opt for the private school route stand to lose. There are numerous critically important protections that are not dissimilar to the safety and effectiveness protections mandated by the FDA. These include:

Rights provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and corresponding state special education laws and policies – Generally, these do not extend to students enrolled in private schools. Congress mandates that states provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to all children with disabilities. Here are six FAPE-related principles codified under IDEA but not guaranteed to carry over to private school students:

    1. Procedural Due Process (this is probably the most important right that would be abridged) – It affirms for parents and guardians the legally enforceable right to challenge the decisions of the school system and to hold the school system accountable for providing FAPE. This right would be stripped away for those who abandon public schools.
    2. “Zero reject” – No student with a disability will be explicitly or functionally excluded from the guarantee of FAPE. Examples include requirements for: an annual child census, removal of physical barriers impeding access to schools, procedures to address behavior issues, and educational services to be continued during suspension or expulsion.
    3. Non-discriminatory evaluation – Each student must receive an unbiased individualized assessment to determine the presence of a disability, the strengths and needs of the student, and whether special education and related services are necessary.
    4. Individualized and appropriate education – Each identified student must receive appropriate special education and related services. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) must be developed, addressing all of these services and the student’s progress in the general curriculum, and many other important issues.
    5. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) – This means students with disabilities must be educated in the most inclusive environment appropriate for that student. Removal of the LRE requirement promotes segregation of students with disabilities with no real requirement to consider inclusion and integration with nondisabled students.
    6. Parent-Student participation – This guarantees that parents and students have the right to participate in the decisions about assessment, program development and placement.

Accountability – Many of the requirements for regular assessments, including assessing students with disabilities, are reduced for private schools. For example:

    1. Students in private school must only be assessed in grades 3, 6, 9 and 11 (and only in grammar, reading, spelling and mathematics). No science testing is required and there is no requirement for providing either alternative assessments or accommodations. There is not even a mandated process for determining if such alternates and/or accommodations are necessary.
    2. While students with disabilities cannot be excluded from the assessments that are administered, there is no requirement that their scores be used for any accountability purpose or even that the scores are reported to families.

Overall, the voucher approach removes all requirements to expect progress for students with disabilities.

Teacher Qualifications – There is no requirement for private schools that their teachers of students with disabilities have any credentials whatsoever. This leaves students with disabilities very vulnerable to inappropriate teaching practices in such areas as seclusion/restraint, physical crisis intervention practices, lack of differentiated instruction that have been proven harmful and unproductive for students with disabilities. There is also no requirement for any system of teacher evaluation, with no prescribed recourse for parents in nonproductive or inappropriate teaching situations.

In other words…

Not only are vouchers bad for public schools, they’re incredibly risky for special needs kids. Sure, many of the protections of the public school system described above can be bureaucratic. The same is true for the tests mandated by the FDA. But there’s a good reason that such protections have evolved over time. Without them, there is an overwhelming incentive to cut corners and, in the case of special needs kids, to simply give up on the ones who are hard to serve.

With private schools, tough-to-serve kids can simply be shown the door and sent back to the institution that must serve them – namely the public schools. Anyone who doesn’t concede that a voucher system would lead to the “creaming” of easier-to-serve children of more affluent and involved parents as a result of this phenomenon is either incredibly naïve or simply not being honest. This is especially true now that House Republicans amended the legislation last week to deny the vouchers to very low-income parents who pay very little income tax.

In short, like the medicine men of pre-FDA America, some private schools might well provide some special needs kids with satisfactory services. Unfortunately, for many other kids, vouchers will be a ticket to nowhere. These kids will find themselves as the detritus of “market” and the struggling public schools to which they will inevitably return will be that much worse off.

Taxpayers ought not to subsidize such a flawed and ruthless process.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.