Sunday, March 5, 2017

Vouchers and Special Education: A Primer

Thanks to Education Week for this graphic illustration of how special education money gets to local schools. As Secretary Betsy DeVos shifts the focus of the public education conversation toward school choice and vouchers, it's important to understand how the current system works. There are a bunch of articles and analyses about this, but here's what I think is important to know.

1. Special education is already underfunded. When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed in 1975, Congress authorized funding for special education up to 40 percent of average per-pupil spending in public schools. But the current federal contribution is just about 16 percent. Read more details about this at EdCentral from the New America.

Rising spending for special education over the past 15 years is mostly the result of more children being identified as "disabled," not a disproportionate increase in the cost of special education services.

2. Investing in private schools takes resources away from public schools. Read this account by Bonnie Kandel, a parent in Indiana, "Civil Rights Crisis Unfolding: Most Needy Children in America at Risk." She's concerned about the impact that voucher systems and Education Savings Accounts would have on her son, who has autism is attending first grade in a public school (after being asked to leave two private preschools). "Options for students with special needs, like my son, are worse than abysmal. Voucher programs are programs where schools choose the child. He is expensive to educate. Not only does he need special interventions that cost money directly, but he also needs teachers with experience and higher education specializing in autism." Kandel points out that Indiana public schools have already lost $485 million because of the push for "school choice." And she's worried about what will happen with more cuts in more states.

3. Students in private schools often forfeit protections and rights. Voucher programs are risky for families because students who attend private schools aren't guaranteed the same rights and protections as students in public schools are. Many states require parents to sign away some or all of their protections under IDEA, Section 504, and the Americans with Disabilities Act to participate in voucher programs. If a private school determines that a student needs support services like occupational or speech therapy, parents often have to cover those services when they exceed the value of the voucher. And if parents are not satisfied with the education at a private school, they have no legal recourse -- their only choice may be to remove their child and find a new school.

4. Voucher programs have not been shown to improve academic performance -- and have actually worsened academic outcomes in Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and other states. As Kevin Carey reports in The New York Times, the latest studies are "very unusual." He writes: "When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana 'as large as any I’ve seen in the literature' — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research." Read Carey's column, "Dismal Results from Vouchers Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins."

Learn more from these recent reports from the Center for American Progress:

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