Disabled Students Lead the Way for School Choice

Published May 1, 2005

Opponents of school choice programs that would allow parents to use a share of their children’s public education funds to pay for attendance at private schools often argue disabled children would be left behind by such a system.

But exactly the opposite is true: Disabled youngsters already enjoy greater school choice than other students, and their experience shows expanded school choice could benefit millions of children who need educational opportunities desperately.

Defenders of the educational status quo often contend one of the reasons many public schools perform poorly is they are forced to accept all students, even those with severe disabilities. Not so: For decades, private schools have provided an escape valve for students public schools cannot accommodate.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that escape valve became a right.

A pair of unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decisions interpreted the law to require that school districts that fail to provide a “free appropriate public education” for each child with a disability must do so at public expense in private schools.

This well-kept secret has quietly produced the largest school choice program in the United States. According to the National Association of Private Special Education Centers, school districts pay private school tuition for 83,000 children nationally, representing nearly 1.5 percent of all disabled children educated in part outside of regular classrooms. At least 48 states and the District of Columbia send at least some disabled children to private schools at public expense.

Non-Disabled Needy Denied Choice

Ironically, many of the states that find private schools most useful for disabled students are the most hostile toward school choice programs for non-disabled students who face educational obstacles, such as the millions of economically disadvantaged students trapped in failing public schools. California, New Jersey, and New York, for example, each send more than 10,000 disabled children to private schools at public expense, and Massachusetts sends nearly as many. Yet all four of those states, which are politically dominated by powerful teacher unions, adamantly resist broader school choice programs.

Florida recently added a new option for disabled youngsters. Its McKay scholarship program allows any child eligible for services under IDEA to use state funds in any private school. So far, 13,000 of the state’s 375,000 disabled students have chosen private schools. And Utah just passed the Carson Smith Scholarships for Students With Special Needs Act, which will allow hundreds of disabled students to attend a private school that might better suit their needs.

The results so far are promising. A study for the Manhattan Institute by Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster, released in June 2003, found that 97.2 percent of parents whose children participate in the McKay program are satisfied, compared to 32.7 percent who were satisfied in the public schools. Average class sizes have been cut in half, and incidents of violence against disabled students have been reduced by more than three-fourths.

Few Good Schools Available

The premise underlying school choice for disabled youngsters is that every disabled child has unique needs. Analysts note, however, that this is true of all children, and particularly for those not presently well-served by public schools.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), public schools are required to demonstrate adequate yearly progress in increasing students’ academic achievement. Over the past year, 24,000 public schools across the nation–roughly one-fourth of all public schools–failed to make adequate yearly progress. At least 12 million American schoolchildren are currently enrolled in failing schools.

Under NCLB, children in such schools are supposed to be offered the chance to transfer into better-performing public schools within the district. Trouble is, there aren’t nearly enough seats in good public schools, especially in the inner cities. In 2002, for instance, 30,000 children in failing Baltimore public schools were eligible for transfers, but only 194 slots were available in better-performing public schools. In Chicago, 145,000 children were eligible to transfer into only 1,170 available slots; in Los Angeles, 223,000 children were trapped in failing public schools, with zero seats available in better schools.

Unlike the IDEA, the NCLB currently has no legal mechanism for allowing students to enforce their rights and escape inadequate schools. As a result, at least 12 million children are being left behind. Once lost, educational opportunities often are never recovered, consigning many economically disadvantaged children to lives of poverty and despair.

Private Education Available, Unused

But it doesn’t have to be that way. States such as Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin have made school choice available to inner-city students and students in failing schools. Thousands of children in those states now attend private schools that have thrown them an educational life preserver. In Milwaukee, the high school graduation rate for school choice students is nearly double what it is for students in the public schools.

States do not have to wait for federal lawmakers to tell them the right thing to do. Following the lead of neighbors such as Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, state lawmakers can act now to expand school choice for children not adequately served by public schools.

Every year they wait, their state’s most vulnerable children miss the educational opportunities they need and deserve.

Clint Bolick ([email protected]) is president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice in Phoenix, Arizona (http://www.allianceforschoolchoice.org).