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by Lewis M. Andrews, Ph.D. Yankee Institute for Public Policy and
Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. Children First America

Revised May 4, 2002

The Need for New Options For Children With Disabilities

In 2001, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute teamed to release a collection of studies titled Rethinking Special Education for a New Century, and the findings are staggering. “America’s program for youngsters with disabilities has developed infirmities, handicaps and special needs of its own,” Fordham and PPI concluded. “Merely adding dollars to the current program will not reform it.” Among the conclusions of the report: parents with learning disabled children are broadly dissatisfied with special education programs in the public schools … thousands of children have been labeled learning disabled merely because public schools have failed to teach them to read properly … and minority students are significantly more likely to be placed into special education programs in both white and non-white public school districts. A brief summary of some of the report’s findings will make the pathologies of the current special education system clear.

The number of students in special education nationwide has grown 65 percent since the inception of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), to about 6.1 million in the 1999-2000 school year, or 8.2 percent of the overall student body. The largest growth has been in the percentage of children classified as learning disabled — which was 21 percent when the law was passed and 46 percent in 1998. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 38 percent of each new tax dollar raised for public schools has been spent on special education.

Despite this massive investment of resources, many parents with children in public school special education programs express dissatisfaction with the level and types of services given to their children. “America’s special education program has an urgent special need of its own,” notes Thomas B. Fordham Foundation president Chester E. Finn. “It is, in many ways, broken.” Jay Matthews, education reporter for the Washington Post, agrees, noting that journalists (himself included) “have done a terrible job telling this story. Special education systems are often too confusing, too bureaucratic and too bound by privacy rules to yield much useful information.” What research is available, he adds, “suggests that the special education system has led to widespread, if well-intentioned, misuse of tax dollars and has failed to help kids ….”

Reading and Special Education
One of the most disturbing parts of the Fordham/PPI report lays out the argument that public schools could actually have prevented many special education students from acquiring their disabilities. Indeed, the case can be made that special education resources spent on children with preventable disabilities has crowded out needed services for more traditional, non-preventable disabilities.

A team of medical doctors led by Reid Lyon of the National Institute for Health found that many special education placements result from the failure to master basic reading skills at a young age. Children fall into three reading categories: those who learn to read before they begin school, those who learn relatively easily in school, and the 20 percent to 30 percent who need extra help. Dr. Lyon’s research demonstrates that intensive remedial reading instruction delivered at a young age could prevent 70% of learning disabilities. Nationwide, Dr. Lyon’s team estimates that nearly 2 million children have been classified as having learning disabilities that could have been either prevented or remediated with proper, rigorous early reading instruction. “From its inception as a category,” they conclude, “LD [learning disability] has served as a sociological sponge that attempts to wipe up general education’s spills and cleanse its ills” — all the while neglecting the fundamental needs of children with such traditional disabilities as Downs Syndrome, autism, blindness, and deafness.

Race and Special Education
Given the relationship between successful literacy training and disabilities, it is a sad fact that minorities are over represented in special education programs. Recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) examinations, for example, found that 60% of African American 4th graders tested scored “below basic” on reading.

All public schools place minority children in special education programs at higher rates than white children; but according to the Fordham/Progressive Policy Institute study, predominantly white school districts label minority children as “learning disabled” at significantly higher rates than do other school districts. Why this should be can be explained by any number of perverse incentives, not the least of which is that special education students draw in additional state funding, and until recently, added federal dollars as well.

Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program
Overall, an ugly picture emerges where the failure of public schools to address the legitimate needs of children with non-preventable disabilities is compounded by the failure to teach many other children, especially many minority children, how to read properly at an early age. Children with preventable disabilities take resources away from children with non-preventable disabilities as well as from general education spending; and everyone ends up feeling shortchanged.

Obviously, public policy makers need to do two things: provide more educational freedom and flexibility to parents of learning disabled children, while at the same time creating incentives to encourage public schools to emphasize basic literacy in the early years. To see how this might be accomplished in Connecticut, consider the surprising evolution of the A+ Plan, the statewide voucher program adopted by the Florida legislature in 1999. Although initially designed as a general education reform, giving a voucher for private schooling to any student whose public school had failed to meet minimum academic standards in two of four years, the law did authorize a sweeping pilot program for learning disabled students in Sarasota County. Under this test project, the only requirement for a special needs child to transfer to a private school was that his parents express dissatisfaction over his progress at meeting the goals of his individualized education program (IEP).

So popular was the pilot program that just one year later state senator John McKay was able to pass an amendment to the original A+ Plan, allowing the Sarasota County provision to apply to the entire state. According to the new law, now known as the McKay Scholarship Program, private schools taking on a special needs child could recover from the government between $6,000 and $20,000, depending on the severity of the child’s disability. The only caveat was that any school wanting to enroll special education students supported by public money had to accept all applicants and not “cherry pick” among the disabled. In the school year 2000-2001, 105 private schools in thirty-six of Florida’s sixty-seven districts signed up to enroll more than 900 special education students. For the current academic year (2001-2002), Florida state officials estimate the number of learning disabled students receiving voucher assistance will quadruple to 4,000, while the number of participating schools will triple to over 300.

Why Such a Plan Could Work in Connecticut
1.) There is already considerable political support for some kind of voucher program in Connecticut, a state that is 43% Catholic and where the three diocese operate many of the low-cost private schools that would initially receive learning disabled children with vouchers. In the early 1990’s a voucher proposal nearly passed the House of Representatives in a tie vote, and the state’s current Governor, John Rowland, is on record as supporting public funding of private schooling for disadvantaged students.

2.) A voucher plan for learning disabled students could help alleviate the dissatisfaction behind a number of sweeping education equalization lawsuits, including Sheff v. O’Neill and Johnson v. Rowland.

3.) If you add the political clout of parents of learning disabled students to the forces already sympathetic to school choice, the momentum could be irresistible — especially if parents who wanted to home-school their learning disabled child would be eligible to receive a voucher payment for their efforts. In spite of the strong opposition of Florida’s teacher union, the McKay Scholarship Program sailed through that state’s legislature. Evidence suggests pivotal backing from the largest group of eligible families — those with moderately disabled children who, while continuing to be promoted with their classmates, were nevertheless floundering academically. “My child needed a choice, an alternative. (She) was lost in middle school,” says the mother of a scholarship recipient from the western part of the state. “She was held back early on, and the district did not want to keep holding her back, so even though she was not learning, she was moved along.” African American clergy from Florida’s cities, where the percentage of fourth graders unable to read can soar as high as sixty percent, were also outspoken supporters of the McKay Scholarship Program. (Interestingly, a similar alliance of middle class parents and minority clergy seems to have coalesced behind President Bush’s recently enacted No Child Left Behind education bill. While stripped of its initial tuition voucher proposal for mainstream schools, the legislation nevertheless retained its “supplemental services” provision, which makes parents at over 3,000 poorly performing schools nationwide eligible for federal funds for remedial tutoring at an independent school or even private company of their choice. Essentially a remedial education voucher program, it lets parents decide how and where the funds will be used.)

4.) Suburbanites, whose property taxes are swelling in response to special education mandates, would look favorably on a plan that gives parents of learning disabled students the freedom to go elsewhere. The McKay Scholarship Program limits the amount of a voucher to whatever the public school would have spent on the child, or the cost of private school tuition, whichever is less. When children enroll in schools with tuitions that are less than what the public school has been spending, the savings to suburban taxpayers can be enormous.

5.) The McKay Scholarship Program gives parents the opportunity to provide their disabled child with an appropriate education without having to sue their way out of their current situation. In Connecticut, such a program would create an enormous savings, both in terms of legal costs and emotional stress.

6.) Finally, it is difficult for Connecticut opponents of vouchers to argue that something like the McKay Scholarship Program violates separation of church and state. Public schools already contract out their most difficult-to-educate students (about 2% of the special education population) to private schools, the majority of which are run by religious institutions.

The Yankee Institute © 2002

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