Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Romney's Voucher Plan: "Disaster for Special Education Students"

Charles Fox, an attorney and parent who writes the excellent Special Education Law blog, provides one of the clearest arguments against Governor Romney's plan to make special education a voucher program. In a post titled "Romney's Educational Vouchers a Disaster for Special Education Students," Fox writes that while choice sounds good in theory, we can't trust the profit-driven market to ensure protections for students with disabilities.

"Charter schools and private schools operate very differently and have different philosophies," he says. "As public schools, charter schools are bound by all of the federal laws pertaining to special education.  It is entirely unclear under this voucher system how many special education students will be accepted to either charter or private schools and what legal protections will follow them. Given Mr. Romney’s hands-off philosophy and market-oriented approach, the likely answer is few if any protections, or as he states derisively, 'regulations' would apply to protect students who opt to use a voucher.

"Congress is authorized to fund up to 40 percent of the cost to educate special education students, bu tin reality, the amount Congress contributes is approximately 16 percent, or $1,950, of the average expenditure per student.The cost to educate a special education student tends to be higher than a regular education student, so profit-maximizing driven private schools will have no incentive to take special education students. The whole premise of better outcomes through competition is very much an illusion for these students."

Some states have experimented with vouchers already -- most notably, Florida under then-Governor Jeb Bush. As Fox explains, "In the McKay Scholarship Program, special education students are given vouchers equal to the lesser amount of the cost of the child’s education in his home school or the tuition charged by the private school he is attending....The amount of vouchers given to these students in 2011-12 ranged from $4,280 up to $18,529; the average voucher was for $6,849." In many areas, this amount would not begin to pay for specialized education for children with disabilities.

And then there's this: "An investigative report by the Miami New Times revealed a 'cottage industry' rife with 'fraud and chaos.' The award-winning author of the report wrote the McKay program was 'like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats.'" Fraud was reported in 25 of 38 schools. "What came out of these reports and what is particularly troubling is the realization that there is no requirement for McKay schools to be accredited. And because these schools are private, the Department of Education can neither monitor curriculum nor prohibit use of corporal punishment. And finally, because these schools are private, there is no system of assessments to overall gauge the progress of their students."

Many charter schools cater to students with mild disabilities. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) has reported that students who have more significant disabilities are excluded from charter schools through a process of “selectivity, controlled outreach, counseling out, and other push-out practices.” 

Fox asks, "So what happens to the more profoundly disabled special education students or those that cannot or choose to not take the voucher if the special needs students with more mild disabilities (and their dollars) are siphoned out to charter or private schools? Will the school districts be left with the resources to educate these students? Are there really other options for these students?  The clear answer is 'no.' There will be few other options, and the prospect for special education students left in the public schools is dismal at best.

Fox concludes, "Sorry, Mr. Romney, but your education policy seems to be poorly thought out. We cannot put our children at risk and subject them to the tender mercies of the market place. Special education students need more, not less, from the education system....Let’s make the current education system stronger and more accountable. We cannot take a leap of faith that the market will provide for students with special needs when we know the economics, the current data, and common sense all strongly prove otherwise."
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