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Imagine, for a moment, a policy that allows learning-disabled students to take their share of federal IDEA funds to the public or private schools of their choice, just as Mitt Romney has proposed. It’s outlandish to suppose that we would discontinue the use of state assessments given to most of these students. But that’s the reality in Florida, home to the nation’s largest special education voucher program, and the group that oversees the program wants to keep the status quo.
Robyn Rennick, who sits on the board that manages the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities, wrote on the redefinED blog Tuesday that it’s wrong to require standardized testing of “a unique group of students” whose individual disabilities vary widely. Test scores are, of course, a muddy measure for students with severe cognitive or developmental disabilities, and that’s how Rennick builds her case. But as much as 82 percent of the 22,200 students who took a McKay Scholarship to a private school last year required only moderate interventions and testing accommodations in the public schools they left.
In fact, most of the students with special needs in Florida graduate high school with a standard diploma. In 2010, there were 340,000 Florida students with an Individualized Education Plan (a requirement for the McKay Scholarship) and they graduated with a standard diploma at a rate of 53 percent.
We know that most parents of McKay students are satisfied with their chosen schools, but to embrace a publicly funded private school choice program and argue against any move toward results-based accountability is an unsustainable position today. Even the McKay board’s own numbers, according to Rennick, show that half the private schools that participate in the program already administer some kind of standardized assessment. Why not publish the results? Or, at the least, why not evaluate McKay students’ performance overall, without breaking down the data by school? The McKay board has rejected even that modicum of transparency. To Rennick, a state requirement of standardized testing will only “drive good schools away from the program.”
This resistance cannot be overlooked as just a Florida issue. The McKay Scholarship has served as a template for special education vouchers in at least six other states, a number bound to grow. Presently, only Ohio’s new Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program takes a heightened approach toward accountability. When school starts next year, students will be expected to take the same state assessments and statewide graduation test that is administered in public schools.
Education policy already has earned a spot in the presidential debate, and it would be nice if Romney could showcase the academic achievements of 30,000 special-needs students nationwide exercising private school choice at public expense. McKay, which benefits nearly 80 percent of those students, should take a leadership role and demonstrate its program’s effectiveness to the public. There’s likely a lot to be proud of.