Meeting the challenges in special education

Patrick Gibbons

Public schools in America continue to fail, and apologists continue to beat the same worn drums — blaming parents, lack of funds and special education.

Special education was highlighted in Dr. Jay P. Greene's book Education Myths as one of the favorite scapegoats for public schools. Apologists point to the recent rapid growth in children diagnosed with learning disabilities and claim it diverts scarce resources away from educating other students. Greene, however, notes that public schools receive substantial grants for each student labeled with a learning disability.

Indeed, significant evidence suggests these incentives may be encouraging public schools to mislabel students as learning-disabled in order to acquire the grants. That's what Greene and Dr. Marcus A. Winters — both of whom are senior fellows at the Manhattan Institute — point out in a new report, How Special Ed Vouchers Keep Kids From Being Mislabeled as Disabled.

"Between 1977 and 2006 the percentage of students enrolled in federally supported disability programs increased by more than 66 percent," notes the report. The bulk of the growth in special education was in the Specific Learning Disability (SLD) category, which now accounts for 40.7 percent of all disability diagnoses. SLD is the most common and least severe category, the authors write, including perceptual handicaps, developmental aphasia and dyslexia.

The Greene-Winters study examines whether vouchers for students with disabilities increase or decrease the misidentification of students with learning disabilities. After examining four states with such voucher programs — Florida, Ohio, Georgia and Utah — they conclude:

…these findings give us enough confidence to conclude that special-education vouchers do not contribute to the growth of special-education enrollments. And our best evidence suggests that the availability of special-education vouchers places some constraint on the growth of special education, which has been quite rapid.

Thus, the argument for special-needs vouchers becomes even more compelling. Not only do they help special-needs children get the most appropriate education in a public or private school, but special-needs vouchers can also discourage schools from misidentifying students as learning-disabled when they are not. This is important, as such

mislabeling may actually harm the student's educational growth.

Fortunately, whether or not Nevada provides special-needs scholarships, choice is coming for parents. The recent Supreme Court decision in Forest Grove School District vs. T.A now allows parents to be reimbursed for the cost of a private-school education if, in the parent's judgment, the public schools have failed to identify or provide a disabled student with an appropriate education. However, this option may entail subsequent litigation with districts.

The 2009 Nevada Legislature could have addressed the issue by passing the special-needs voucher program, SB 81, introduced by Senator Barbara Cegavske, but it failed to do so. The bill would have provided special-needs scholarships equivalent to the sum of basic support per pupil for each school district — which averaged $5,251 for the 2009-10 school year — and the additional special-education support which would have gone to the traditional public school.

While most school districts expressed no opinion regarding SB 81, some, as well as other insiders, worried aloud that providing special-needs scholarships would decrease funding. However, it was only district administration that would lose control over funds: Even in the worst-case scenario, per-pupil funding would remain the same.

Nye County School District, under Superintendent William Roberts, went so far as to claim that special-needs vouchers would be a step backwards in providing education for all children — appealing, ironically, to the No Child Left Behind law, which is generally hated among the education establishment. Other opponents of the bill claimed special-education students would be harmed because private schools won't offer them an Individualized Educational Program (IEP), which is an agreement between the parent of a special-needs student and the school on how the local school will address the student's educational needs. But this is a false claim. In order to attract the student — and win the voucher funding — the private school would have to offer an education program that satisfies the needs of the parents and students. Additionally, public school IEPs are often inadequate or full of false promises – a reason why parents won the Forrest Grove Supreme Court case in the first place.

Special-needs vouchers are beneficial. A 2003 report by Greene and Winters on Florida's McKay scholarship program found special-needs children were more likely to have the appropriate services provided to them when the scholarship was made available.  Additionally, parents participating in the McKay program were three times more likely to be satisfied with their schools, where classrooms were half as large, children underwent less bullying and teachers saw fewer behavioral problems.

Few legitimate excuses exist for opposing special-needs scholarship programs. Defending the status quo — and the substandard public education system that will continue at least through 2011 in Nevada — is not one of them.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.