Lawmakers in at least 10 states are considering a policy
shift that would bring more educational choices to an especially vulnerable
population of students: the special education voucher.  They are taking inspiration from a pioneering
effort in Florida,
the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, which already is
emulated in six other states. This program has saved taxpayers money while
satisfying participating families. What’s more, teacher unions seem disinclined
to mount a legal challenge to a program that benefits students with special
needs, though they remain eager to fight other voucher programs.

But are happy families and budget savings enough? What about
academic achievement? Do the private schools these kids attend teach them
anything? How does their performance compare with those of special-needs kids
who remain in public schools? Right now, we simply don’t know.

Currently, 28,800 special-education students receive
publicly funded private-school scholarships in seven states. Florida’s McKay program serves nearly 80
percent of those youngsters; according
to Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus A. Winters,
it’s “a nearly ideal
template” for policy makers to consider. The Sunshine State’s
Legislature established it 13 years ago with the encouragement of then-governor
Jeb Bush, and today the program enjoys modest bipartisan support of a sort
seldom found with vouchers of any kind. Last year, the McKay program served
about 22,200 students, about 6 percent of the 340,000 young Floridians with
special needs (to be precise, those students who received an Individualized
Education Plan). While that number may be small, the savings these students
yield to the state are significant; the average award of $7,209 paid to McKay
students was less than the $9,000 Florida paid per pupil in all of elementary
and secondary education and far less than the sums typically spent for special

The Mckay voucher comes with virtually no state-mandated

But the voucher comes with virtually no state-mandated
accountability. Most
participating parents declare themselves satisfied with their chosen schools
but the public knows nothing about McKay’s effectiveness. Instead, Florida residents see
press accounts
of McKay students enrolling at private schools with dubious
academic programs and suspicious business practices. When such reports surface,
support for the initiative becomes unsettled, and some
lawmakers overreact
with calls demanding, for instance, state approval of
textbooks and instructional materials.

Most programs modeled after McKay in other states are still
small, but growing. Since 1999, McKay has expanded to help a majority of
students with milder disabilities. About 82 percent of McKay students came to
the program with IEPs that required moderate interventions. If they remained in
public school, many would likely have received accommodations when taking the
Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Test scores are a muddy measure for
students with severe cognitive disabilities, but it’s reasonable to gauge the
performance of students with milder disabilities—with either a state assessment
or a nationally-normed achievement test.

At a minimum, McKay and programs like it should adopt the
same level of program measurement
used in Florida’s
other publicly-funded private option: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for
low-income students, which has also emerged as an “ideal template” for
scholarship policies of its kind. (I should
disclose that, for two years, I helped to run the policy and communications
initiatives for the tax credit scholarship program
) Under the terms of that
program, participating schools must administer a nationally-normed achievement
test and submit the results to a research team under contract with the state to
measure the program’s academic progress. Schools that receive at least $250,000
in scholarship revenue must submit a financial report and those with at least
30 scholarship students must publicly disclose the gains of those students as
shown on their tests. (This is in line with the
“sliding scale” of accountability
that Fordham proposed for scholarship
programs several years ago.)

McKay should reestablish its status as a pioneer by
embracing a reasonable form of results-based accountability.

Presently, only Ohio’s
new Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program takes similar steps toward
accountability. Enrollment has just started, but students will be expected to
take the same state assessments and statewide graduation test that is
administered in public schools. Lawmakers in the Buckeye State
had already required the same of students receiving its Educational Choice
scholarships, which is a sizable statewide voucher program for youngsters
otherwise trapped in low performing public schools.

McKay should reestablish its status as a pioneer by
embracing a reasonable form of results-based accountability. Doing so would
overcome the objections from critics such as Sara Mead of Bellwether Education
Partners. “There’s no evidence that children with disabilities need additional
education options more than any other youngsters in underperforming schools, or
that vouchers address the underlying problems in special education,” Mead argued in 2010.

It’s doubtful that
McKay families would agree with that assessment. But in order to remain a sound
and politically-viable policy option, special education vouchers need to
demonstrate their effectiveness to the public. I have no doubt that they will
pass the test with flying colors.

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