Vouchers Help the Learning Disabled

Published June 1, 2002

A recently released study of 22 nations has established that families of special-needs children are among the biggest beneficiaries of universal school choice. The study represents a powerful challenge to those who contend choice turns public schools into “special-education ghettos.”

Such anti-choice figures as Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, have argued that government programs supporting parental choice of private schools will result in the best students leaving, with the public schools becoming dumping grounds for disabled, hyperactive, or delinquent students. That hypothetical outcome is often called “skimming.”

But after an 18-month study of nations that aid parents in sending their children to private schools, Dr. Lewis M. Andrews has found special education children tend to thrive “to an extent not even imagined by American educators.”

“Allowing parents to take the public money set aside for their child’s education and spend it at any school of their choice is a social policy that clearly benefits most deaf, autistic, hyperactive, and other learning disabled children,” concludes the study.

In fact, suggests Andrews, “the more American parents of learning-disabled children become knowledgeable about the benefits of school choice around the world, the more the advocates of the status quo may regret ever trying to exploit the issue of special education in the first place.”

Andrews, who is executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy in Hartford, Connecticut, conducted a detailed analysis of six countries: Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Each nation embraces school choice as national policy to some extent, although provisions vary for special education.

Denmark Offers Widespread Choice

The nation with the deepest and longest commitment to unfettered choice is Denmark. There, political support for private school choice dates back to 1899, and special-needs families are fully included. The Danish Education Ministry allows public subsidies to follow a disabled child to the school of the parents’ choice. The state also make extra grants for additional help, such as after-school tutoring.

As a consequence, more than 99 percent of Denmark’s 80,000 learning-disabled children are educated side-by-side with so-called mainstream children, an ideal known as “inclusion.” Only seventh-tenths of 1 percent are consigned to institutions. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has lauded Denmark’s free-choice approach as a model for the world.

Sweden, by contrast, adopted freedom of educational choice in 1992, but made a critical exception: Parents of special-education children were not given the same freedom. Writing in the April/May 2002 issue of Policy Review, Andrews attributed that omission to “Sweden’s long history of pedagogic paternalism, which for decades had lowered testing standards, altered textbooks, and micromanaged both classroom and extracurricular activities—all in an effort to avoid making the learning disabled feel in any way inferior.”

As a result, many special-needs children in Sweden continue to be ill-served by bureaucratic sorting mechanisms. For instance, more than one-half of deaf students still receive their education in separate institutions. Only half of Sweden’s schools have put in place the individual plans for special-needs children that are supposedly required by the central ministry.

Holland, New Zealand Learn the Hard Way

Holland learned from the folly of having choice for “normal” students alongside no choice for those in special education.

Public funding of parental choice became national policy in the Netherlands in 1917; today, approximately two-thirds of elementary and secondary children attend private schools. However, the Dutch maintained separate school systems for educating children according to their particular learning disability, and began to notice a disturbing increase in the numbers of pupils labeled “disabled,” a possible sign of bureaucratic empire-building.

In 1990, the Dutch adopted a “Going to School Together Policy,” which gave parents of disabled children the right to choose either an ordinary or a special school. As a result, Andrews found, the Dutch education system is winning support from all political quarters, and especially from the advocates of increased inclusion. The system has whittled its 14 separate systems for the disabled to just four.

New Zealand also corrected initial flaws in school choice in order to allow the learning-disabled to participate fully.

In their book, When Schools Compete: a Cautionary Tale, school choice opponents Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd made much of New Zealand’s freedom-of-choice law, enacted in the late 1980s, allowing the more popular public schools to reject students whose disabilities might drag down average scores or be expensive to remediate. However, notes Andrews, in 1999 and 2000 New Zealand adopted amendments that largely correct that problem. Supplemental funding follows the disabled child to the school of his or her parents’ choice. As a result, school choice in the country “now enjoys nearly universal public support.”

Early Success in U.S.

Andrews’ study also notes Florida’s early success in applying the lessons learned from the international experience with school choice. Under the two-year-old McKay Scholarship Program, parents of any special-needs child in Florida can receive a voucher worth anywhere from $6,000 to $20,000—depending on the severity of the child’s disability—and can place the child in a private school of their choosing. Already, more than 300 private schools are serving more than 4,000 special-needs children through McKay Scholarships.

Andrews notes that much of the impetus for privatization of public education in Europe and elsewhere has come from activism on behalf of special-needs students. “In the end,” says Andrews, “the parents of learning-disabled students have the same goal as all market-oriented school reformers: to make every educator accountable to the highest possible standards.”

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].

For more information …

Lewis M. Andrews’ study, “More Choice for Disabled Kids: Lessons from Abroad,” is available at the Web site of the Yankee Institute at www.yankeeinstitute.org.