Research & Commentary: Special-Needs Vouchers

Published March 26, 2012

Seven states currently offer special-needs students the opportunity to take their public funds to a private school, and at least 10 more states are currently considering similar legislation.

The expense and extent of education services targeted at students diagnosed as disabled or with a learning disability such as dyslexia or ADHD has increased markedly in the past 50 years, since the federal government began dedicating funding for such students. Schools have strong financial incentives to diagnose students as special needs, because the school receives more money. Parents of special-needs children also litigate for more money for these services.

Some special-needs advocates say the answer is more money and more programs. The research on many disorders such as autism is still wide open, so much more experimenting remains to be done to determine the best ways to educate students with these disorders. Many families have different opinions about what kind of education is best for their special-needs child.

This, say reform advocates, is a situation ripe for expanding choice and opportunity in the form of vouchers or education savings accounts. The children involved have highly personalized needs, and the history of special education shows it is extremely difficult and frustrating for every school to provide exhaustive and differentiated attention to their vast and varying needs to parents’ satisfaction.

Vouchers and education savings accounts relieve this frustration by giving families the freedom to choose, from among many available options, what they think is best for their child. They can find a willing provider rather than try to force the education they want from the one school available. Research has shown this approach results in greater parent satisfaction, taxpayer savings, better education for special-needs children, and fewer questionable diagnoses of special needs.

Such programs are also an excellent way to publicize the benefits of school choice for children who have different learning needs even if they are not disabled.

The following documents offer more information about vouchers for special-needs students. 


Census Finds that About 1 in 20 School Children Have a Disability
The American Community Survey finds about 2.8 million of the nation’s 53.9 million schoolchildren ages 5 to 17 were reported to have a disability in 2010, reports Education Week. This is the first time officials have analyzed the data the government has collected. 

Special Ed. Vouchers May Open Doors for Choice
Creating private school vouchers for special-education students has become an excellent strategy to broaden school choices for all students, since special-needs programs are rarely challenged in court and garner more sympathy from would-be opponents, reports Education Week. At least seven states have such programs, and at least 10 more are considering them. 

Blaine Amendment Brings Challenges to Private School Parents
The Missouri constitution’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits public funds from going to religious institutions, has forced families and schools to create awkward and counterproductive arrangements, reports the Kansas City Star. It forces families to decide between sending their child to a school that has specific services, a general culture, or religious mores they favor and getting state-paid support for a disability. 

Shifting Trends in Special Education
Public data indicate the national proportion of students with disabilities peaked in 2004–05 and has been declining since, notes a report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Proportions of students with specific learning disabilities, mental retardation, and emotional disturbances have declined, but the proportions of students with autism, developmental delays, and other health impairments have increased notably. The ratio of special-education teachers and paraprofessionals to special-education students varies widely from state to state—such that the analysts question the accuracy of the data states reported to the federal government.

Education Scholarships Offer New Hope for Special Needs Children
Mark Flatten investigates the education needs of disabled children in an investigative report for the Goldwater Institute. In many schools, he finds, special-needs programs do not meet the needs of disabled children or match the options personally tailored by their parents, which the state’s special-needs scholarship accounts are supposed to make available. He examines the scholarship law’s design, its reception in the courts, and its recent history. 

Something Has Got to Change: Rethinking Special Education
In an American Enterprise Institute working paper, Nathan Levenson discusses practical ways to tame out-of-control special-education spending while serving special-needs students better. A steady increase in special-education spending has occurred with remarkably little attention paid to effectiveness or efficiency. Levenson demonstrates districts can improve in four key ways: better integration with general education classrooms; smarter deployment of support staff; more sophisticated metrics to gauge effectiveness; and more strategic management structures.

The Promise of Special Education Vouchers
One of the fastest-growing types of school-choice program does not fit the typical voucher mold yet has received little attention, writes Marcus Winters for National Affairs. Voucher programs serving students with disabilities are one of the most promising avenues for advancing school choice, he writes. Vouchers allow disabled students to attend the schools that best meet their needs, and they provide a powerful mechanism that can help save cash-strapped states millions of dollars. Research has proven the incentives inherent in special-education vouchers improve the quality of education public schools provide to all their students.



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If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].