Florida’s program making vouchers available to any special-education student in the state is yielding significant benefits for participants after just three full years of operation.
Now the question is: Will families across the nation eventually be able to use this innovative form of school choice to help address their own children’s special needs?
Manhattan Institute scholars Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster conducted the first empirical evaluation of Florida’s McKay vouchers, named for the former president of the state senate, who championed them.
Under the program, parents dissatisfied with the special education services provided to their children in public schools can use a voucher to enroll their children in participating private schools. The vouchers are equal to the cost of educating students in public schools and are applied toward tuition and fees.
Currently, 9,202 students use McKay vouchers, making it already the second largest voucher program in the nation. Its potential for expansion is considerable, as 375,000 special-education students in the state are eligible.
Researchers conducted telephone interviews with 600 respondents whose children are currently enrolled in the McKay program and 215 whose children no longer take part. From those surveys, Greene and Forster reached these major findings:
- Parents are far more satisfied with their McKay schools (93 percent “satisfied” or “very satisfied”) than they had been with their public schools (33 percent similarly satisfied).
- Class sizes dropped from an average of 25 students in public schools to just under 13 per class in McKay schools.
- Safety and behavior improved in McKay schools. In public schools, almost half of pupils were often victimized by other students because of their disabilities, while in McKay schools only 5 percent were. While 40 percent of current participants said their children manifested behavior problems when they were in public schools, only 18 percent reported such misbehavior in McKay schools.
“Perhaps the strongest evidence regarding the McKay program’s performance,” the Manhattan scholars noted, “is that over 90 percent of parents who have left the program believe that it should continue to be available for those who wish to use it.” The researchers had determined they could get a more complete picture of the program’s performance if they included those who dropped out, not just those who remain McKay participants. The survey did not ask why they left.
The study’s release came as Congress was still grappling with the reauthorization of the massive Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Advocates seeking results-oriented reform and parental empowerment have clashed with special interests–including the national teacher unions–pushing expansion of federal funding without major structural changes in a bureaucratic and litigious IDEA.
Early proposals for giving states flexibility to try McKay-style choice under the IDEA umbrella failed to win a majority in the House of Representatives, but the Manhattan results have given advocates new hope for eventual success.
Rep. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), who has championed school choice, said he hoped the proven success of the Florida program “will persuade Congress to give all states the freedom and flexibility to create programs that promote choice for families.
“Too often,” DeMint said, “the complicated and adversarial federal IDEA system prevents parents from making choices unless they are wealthy and have the time to navigate the confusing IDEA bureaucracy. Families at all income levels should be given options to ensure that their disabled children receive a truly equal and quality education.”
The Manhattan study generated data that appear to counter many of the claims made by critics of the McKay vouchers.
For instance, critics contend the McKay schools lack accountability because they are outside the government-prescribed compliance process. Two such critics, People for the American Way (PFAW) and the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund (DREDF), issued a joint report claiming once parents use a voucher to leave the public schools, “they have effectively opted out of the legal rights and educational services guaranteed under IDEA.”
School choice advocates point out the most powerful form of accountability comes when parents can withdraw their children if schools fail to live up to their commitments. Findings from the Manhattan Institute study tend to support that view.
The researchers found only 30 percent of current McKay participants said they received all federally required services when their children were in public schools, while 86 percent reported their McKay school had delivered on all the services promised. Among former McKay participants, 36 percent believed their public schools provided all the required services, while 49 percent said their McKay schools delivered on their promises.
Many McKay critics also assail the voucher program on equity grounds because the rules permit parents to use their vouchers at schools that charge more in tuition and fees than the voucher will cover. That means only the wealthy would be able to afford truly high-quality services in private schools, according to critics.
However, the Manhattan researchers found 72 percent of current participants and 76 percent of former participants said they paid either no more than the voucher covered or less than $1,000 per year more. Contrary to assertions in a New York Times news story and a Times column by Richard Rothstein, the study concluded, “most McKay participants are getting measurably better services from private schools for either the same amount of money that public schools spend or for only a moderately higher amount.”
In addition, the PFAW/DREDF report charged McKay private schools “pick and choose” among students with disabilities, “denying admission to students with more severe or specific kinds of disabilities.” The Manhattan data, however, establish that McKay students reflect the statewide profile in terms of severity of disability.
The data indicated transportation to school may have been more of a problem for McKay families than for those in public schools, perhaps helping to explain why some parents dropped out of the program. Among former participants, 17 percent found transportation to public school burdensome, while 58 percent judged transportation to a McKay school of choice to be burdensome.
On the crucial question of whether the McKay program should be continued, the Manhattan team asked only the former participants their view. The overwhelming 91 percent “yes” response came without significant differences as to race, income, or severity of disability.
“This must be considered a very strong show of support for the McKay program,” concluded Greene and Forster, “considering that these are the parents who have chosen not to participate any longer. It appears that whatever their reasons for leaving, they don’t feel that other students would be worse off for having the program available.”
Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].
The Manhattan Institute report, “Vouchers for Special Education Students: An Evaluation of Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program,” can be found online at http://www.miedresearchoffice.org.