Schools are not like private corporations. Governor Romney’s goal to privatize, voucherize, and let the market determine winners and losers is simplistic. The reality is we do not have to wait to project that under his system special education students will be losers. To be clear, I advocate on a regular basis in appropriate cases for students to be tuitioned out to private schools with their IEPs intact, even if that school is more restrictive because it has what the child needs to receive a FAPE.
As a primary part of his education platform, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is proposing a pro-choice, pro-voucher system that will allow parents to choose which schools their children can attend. Romney is arguing that market forces and competition will force improvements in public schools. Additionally, Romney is proposing to allow federal Title I and IDEA funds (which will also likely be cut) to become “portable” for low income and special needs students. These funds would follow the students to any district or public charter school, private school where permitted by state law, or toward tutoring or online courses. In theory, these proposals sound wonderful. Who wouldn’t want their children, both regular and special education, to go to the best possible schools? These proposals, however, could be disastrous for special education students.
So, how exactly will Mr. Romney’s plan work? The actual dollar amount that special needs students would be taking with them to private schools is actually not that high. IDEA is known as an underfunded mandate. Whereas Congress is authorized to fund up to 40% of the cost to educate special education students, in reality the amount Congress contributes is approximately 16%, or $1,950, of the average expenditure per student.The cost to educate a special education student tends to be higher than a regular education student, so profit-maximizing driven private schools will have no incentive to take special education students. The whole premise of better outcomes through competition is very much an illusion for these students.
And how well are charter schools working? We know from research in other contexts that charter schools are not doing well for special education students under existing law; there is no reason to think that making an already ineffective system for special students and taking it national will have any better outcomes.
Florida has been operating a voucher program, the McKay Scholarship program since 1999 when it was inaugurated by then Governor Jeb Bush (who incidentally wrote the preface to Mitt Romney’s White Paper on education). Special education students are given vouchers equal to the lesser amount of the cost of the child’s education in his home school or the tuition charged by the private school he is attending. The McKay program, which advocates deem “wildly successful,” has grown from 970 students in 2000 to 24,194 students in the 2011-12 school year.
The amount of vouchers given to these students in 2011-12 ranged from $4,280 up to $18,529; the average voucher was for $6,849. (I can tell you from personal experience in Illinois that such sums will not get students into many of the private schools that are equipped to address more intense and pervasive educational issues.) Overall, Florida paid $151.3 million to 1,086 private schools. That’s a lot of money and clearly a lot of oversight is needed to monitor how these schools are being operated and how these students are faring. One would think. However, an investigative report by the Miami New Times revealed a “cottage industry” rife with “fraud and chaos.” The award-winning author of the report wrote the McKay program was “like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats.”
The newspaper reported the results of a Department of Education investigation, which substantiated allegations of fraud in 25 of the 38 schools. The investigation, however, had been “stymied by trickle-down gubernatorial politics” resulting in the agency’s inability to uncover even a “significant fraction of the McKay crime that was occurring,” according to a former DOE investigator. Yes, Florida’s state legislators were shocked and dismayed by the reports, and yes changes are being instituted. But what came out of these reports and what is particularly troubling is the realization that there is no requirement for McKay schools to be accredited. And because these schools are private, the Department of Education can neither monitor curriculum nor prohibit use of corporal punishment. And finally, because these schools are private, there is no system of assessments to overall gauge the progress of their students.
McKay supporters say, “Not to worry” based on a survey of current and past McKay participants who actually they claim to be pretty happy with services their children receive or have received. The survey indicated that 92.7% of current McKay parents report that they are either satisfied or very satisfied with their children’s schools. Of McKay participants, 48.8% of current students and 36.7% of former students have or had had IEP’s in their private schools. Overall, 19.9% of current McKay families and 42.6% of past McKay families said that not having an IEP had been a problem. (So not having an IEP was an issue for more than 50% of former participants? And this is a study cited by McKay supporters?) No IEP also means no effective means to enforce violations of the students’ rights or any real accountability.
The problem with this survey is that it is from 2003 and involved only a miniscule amount of special education students in the state. At the time of the study, only 9,202 of the 375,000 eligible students were involved in McKay schools, representing less than 3% of special education students. These 9,202 students presumably represented a fairly specific self-selected population. The survey sample was comprised of 600 current students and 215 former students. Given that the study was done well before the expose from the Miami New Times was done, it would be interesting to repeat the survey to see if parental attitudes have changed as the program has evolved in the past decade, particularly since this survey is touted as proof that families of students in McKay schools aren’t “missing” their IEPs.
The other problem with vouchers for special education students is that private schools and charter schools are enrolling a disproportionate lower number of special education students than public schools. And those students who are being enrolled tend to represent those students with milder disabilities. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from this past June showed that 11.2% of students in public schools have disabilities whereas that number is reduced to 8.2% of students in charter schools. Although charter schools are required to provide free appropriate public educations to students with disabilities, according to the GAO, most charter schools are simply ill equipped to provide services to students with severe disabilities.
COPAA, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, released a detailed analysis this June on how charter schools were servicing children with disabilities, and the results are fairly scathing (9). In preparing the report, COPAA examined 5000 publicly funded charter schools, most located in urban, underperforming school districts. Their numbers about disparate enrollments of students with special needs jive with those of the GAO report. COPAA examined three public school districts that rely heavily on charter schools—New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Whereas the rate of special needs students in the New Orleans Recovery School District public schools is 12.6%, only 7.8% of charter school students have disabilities. Whereas Los Angeles public schools have 11% students with disabilities, that number drops to less than 7% in the charter schools. Additionally, COPAA found that students with more significant disabilities were excluded from charter schools through a process of “selectivity, controlled outreach, counseling out, and other push out practices.”
So what happens to the more profoundly disabled special education students or those that cannot or choose to not take the voucher if the special needs students with more mild disabilities (and their dollars) are siphoned out to charter or private schools? Will the school districts be left with the resources to educate these students? Are there really other options for these students? The clear answer is “no.” There will be few other options and the prospect for special education students left in the public schools is dismal at best.
Pro-voucher supporters argue that if parents aren’t happy with the special education services their child is receiving at his or her public, charter, or private school, the family can simply move the child to a different school and thereby forgo a potentially expensive and lengthy due process case. The problem with this argument, according to COPAA, is that it assumes parents have alternative school options and are savvy enough to research and make informed decisions about what school their children should attend. But it’s just not that simple. Given that the majority of charter schools are based in large urban areas, what real choice does a family in a rural area or smaller city have? In many instances, true school choice may be curtailed by transportation issues. Parents may simply be unable to transport or the distance to another school may make choice even more illusory. When I am in rural areas the ability to argue for an out of district placement is typically not great and we have to work hard to make it work in the LEA.
Sorry Mr. Romney, but your education policy seems to be poorly thought out. We cannot put our children at risk and subject them to the tender mercies of the market place. Special education students need more, not less, from the education system. Our kids will likely be crushed in a run for the exits in a vouchered public school system. The data on hand, to date, does not suggest anything to the contrary. Let’s make the current education system stronger and more accountable. We cannot take a leap of faith that the market will provide for students with special needs when we know the economics, the current data, and common sense all strongly prove otherwise.