Special Education Vouchers Prevent Mislabeling

Published October 22, 2009

A study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research has found special education vouchers can keep children from being mislabeled as disabled.

It’s important to make the distinction for two reasons, says Marcus Winters, Ph.D., a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and coauthor of the study.

“First, it unnecessarily stigmatizes the child. Teachers, parents, and even the student himself might have an unwarranted reduction in their expectations for the student’s success when he is diagnosed,” he said. “Second, misdiagnosing students as disabled masks real problems in the public schools. The policy implications are very different if students are performing poorly because their school is not educating them well than if they have a processing problem in their brain.”

Removing Incentives

The public education system has a vested interest in labeling children as “disabled,” whether they actually are or not, Winters says.

“In most states, schools receive additional revenue for each child placed into special education. When the amount of money that a school will receive for diagnosing a student is greater than or equal to the cost of the additional services they will provide, the school has an incentive to diagnose a child whether or not he is truly disabled,” he explained.

“Special education vouchers diminish this incentive, because while schools still receive more funding for each diagnosed child, they also must worry that a diagnosed student will use his voucher to leave for a private school and take all of his per-pupil funding with him.”

Removing the financial incentive to mislabel children isn’t the only advantage special education vouchers have to offer, Winters says.

“This is our third study of Florida’s voucher program for disabled students. In one previous study, we surveyed parents of disabled students with experience in the program and found they report receiving much better services and are far more satisfied with their private school than they were with their previous public school,” he said. “In another recent study we found public schools have responded to the competitive pressures of the program by improving the education they provide to their disabled students.”

Saving Money

Florida’s program saves the state’s taxpayers substantial financial resources. Florida’s McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program provided over 19,850 Florida students with special needs the opportunity to attend a participating private school during the 2007-08 school year. McKay Scholarships for eligible students with learning disabilities range from $5,500 to $22,000 a year, depending on the level of the child’s diagnosed disability.

“According to the Department of Education, Florida spent $8,868 per pupil in 2007-08, counting federal dollars. For the 2007-08 school year, $131.3 million was spent, and the average scholarship amount was $7,295,” notes Thomas M. Perrin, public affairs director for the James Madison Institute, a Florida-based think tank.

That’s a difference of more than $1,500 per student. In a tough economy, it would be foolish to ignore those numbers, Winters says.

“The results from this and our prior work suggest states should give these programs real consideration,” he said. “We have found evidence suggesting special education vouchers help disabled students who use them and the disabled students who remain in the public school system, and they stop schools from mislabeling students as disabled. Special education vouchers are one of those rare policies that benefit everyone acting in good faith.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.