Special-education vouchers need accountability

Ordinarily, states that measure the academic performance of public school students assess students with disabilities no differently than students in general education. But exceptions are made, primarily for children with severe cognitive disabilities. And testing accommodations frequently are part of a student’s Individualized Education Plan (such as extending the time it takes to take a test).

Those exceptions partly explain why the Thomas B. Fordham Institute excluded special-education voucher programs from a study of how private schools view the regulations that come with various voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs. Traditional testing tools aren’t always the best measure for students with special needs, but that doesn’t mean no accountability measures should follow special-needs students who leave a public school for a private school with a publicly funded voucher.

Virtually no accountability measures, however, exist in most of the nation’s special-education voucher programs, including the largest such program in the United States, Florida’s McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. And the coalition of schools that oversees the McKay program appears to want to keep it that way—and it’s wrong to do so.

The McKay Coalition surveyed its own Florida schools after Fordham published School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring, which surveyed private schools in communities served by four prominent voucher programs in Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The Fordham report found that only 3 percent of non-participating schools cited governmental regulations as the most important reason to opt out. Regulations that restrict student admissions and schools’ religious practices are more likely to deter school participation than are requirements pertaining to academic standards, testing, and public disclosure of achievement results.

Leaders of the McKay Coalition, in a post on the redefinED blog, said its own survey led to “findings in Florida that were polar opposite from the Fordham Institute…” Of the private schools that currently participate in the McKay Scholarship program and that responded to the coalition’s survey, 61 percent said they would no longer participate if they were forced to administer Florida’s state assessment to their pupils.

Voucher programs are of little value if their rules and requirements discourage private schools from signing up. But there are several problems with the McKay Coalition’s thinking and line of questioning on this issue:

  • The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), the state’s public school assessment, isn’t the only test available. Indeed, the McKay Coalition reports that 91 percent of the participating schools that responded to its survey administer a norm-referenced test, such as the Stanford Achievement Test. Why not make the results of that test public, especially for schools that receive a substantial amount of revenue from the scholarship program? Such a requirement is a part of Florida’s other voucher-like program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, and the number of schools participating in that program continues to grow.
  • As many as three-fourths of the students receiving the McKay Scholarship this year had milder disabilities and would have required, at most, only moderate interventions and testing accommodations in the public schools they left.
  • The coalition reports that 98 percent of the schools that responded to its survey said the FCAT was an inappropriate assessment for McKay students. Yet about 40 percent of respondents said they would remain in the program if the FCAT was a requirement.
  • The coalition also seems to be celebrating that 60 percent of their schools would stop serving special-needs kids over a single test. But however objectionable that finding might be, it also seems to be the least credible. The Fordham report surveyed school perspectives on rules and regulations already in place. The McKay survey stoked emotions about a program requirement that doesn’t exist.

All this points to what motivates the McKay Coalition in the first place: maintaining the conditions that allow for as few regulations as is possible. Its previous statements about testing imply it believes that no method of public assessment or public scrutiny is permissible. To be sure, an innovative policy like the McKay Scholarship shouldn’t get in the way of a private school’s autonomy or its freedom to be different. But taxpayers shouldn’t be left in the dark about the educational value of the investment they have made.

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