McKay is OK, but with accountability it would be great
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 education.
The Mckay voucher comes with virtually no state-mandated accountability.
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.
Category: Charters & Choice
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About the Editor
Director, Program on Parental Choice
Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. He coordinates the Institute’s school choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues that include charter schools and public school choice along with school vouchers, homeschooling and digital learning.
May 16, 2013
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