The Confession

Steven Miller

Say what you will about the federal No Child Left Behind program. In one area, at least, it is producing clear-cut progress.

It is rapidly revealing how little liberals—despite their plentiful verbiage—care about the disadvantaged when it really counts.

As happens in Nevada every legislative session, Assembly Democrats pantomimed great horror over state Senate proposals that might allow a few Silver State children with disabilities to escape failing special-ed programs at failing government schools.

What was so dreadful about the bills in question? They were patterned in part after Florida’s extremely popular McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. They thus would have allowed parents to choose for their child the best educational setting, whether it is public or private. Florida abandoned the traditional Soviet-style command-and-control special education system that Nevada school bureaucrats still insist upon. Instead, ultimate control over special needs children’s education was handed over to the people in the world who care most about those children—their parents.

Unsurprisingly, even though costs to Florida taxpayers saw virtually no net increase, parents soon reported much greater satisfaction with their experiences in private McKay schools than with their experiences in the public schools.

According to a 2003 study by Jay Greene and Greg Forster of the Manhattan Institute, 92.7 percent of current McKay participants were satisfied or very satisfied with their new schools, while only 32.7 percent were similarly satisfied with their public schools.

Former McKay participants gave similar responses. Over 62 percent were satisfied with their McKay school, while only 45.2 percent were satisfied with their old public school. Former participants also reported that their McKay schools performed better than their public schools on almost every other measure.

One of the major problems faced by special needs children in the public schools is that other students victimize them because of their disabilities. McKay students reported far less victimization: In public schools, 46.8 percent had been bothered often and 24.7 percent had been physically assaulted. But in McKay schools the comparable figures were only 5.3 percent and 6.0 percent.  

A huge problem with government schools’ programs for special needs students is the programs’ failure to actually deliver the services required under federal and state law. Some school districts essentially “farm” special-ed kids because of the fat per-pupil bounties they can thus collect. They then use those same funds for programs other than special education.

No doubt because they answer primarily to customer-parents, McKay schools significantly outperform public schools on actually delivering promised services. Only 30.2 percent of current participants say they received all services required under federal law from their public school, while 86.0 percent reported their McKay school provided all the services promised.

Unfortunately, to liberals in the Legislature, sterling successes like these are completely beside the point. It’s irrelevant how much a program benefits handicapped kids. What’s most important is satisfying the government unions that want everyone forced forever to stay inside the state’s failing Big Socialist government-schools tent.

In the New Republic recently, former Kerry education advisor Robert Gordon complained that nowadays, rather than displease teacher unions by demanding the requisites of good schools, Democrats continually sell out the poor and minorities—functionally contemptuous of the latter’s profound need for quality education. Rather than risk the access to political office that government unions facilitate for them, contemporary “progressives” regularly jettison their self-proclaimed ideals.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its clear demands for accountability, shows how far this has proceeded, points out Gordon. He notes that—in a completely cynical 180-degree reversal—“resistance to federal power is now a progressive rallying cry in education.”

While “the National Education Association (NEA) is now suing Washington for forcing states to spend more money on education, … Democrats at the National Conference of State Legislatures recently helped draft a bipartisan report charging that NCLB infringes upon states’ Tenth Amendment rights.” Those rights, of course, have been ridiculed by self-proclaimed “progressives” for over 100 years.

Were U.S. liberals genuinely returning to the limited-government principles at the heart of classical 18th and 19th Century liberalism (and the original-intent constitutional jurisprudence that protected it), it would be cause for congratulation.

But to only exalt compassion so long as it camouflages the pursuit of power—abandoning it as soon as it does not—reveals only an underlying nihilism.

Nevada’s Assembly majority opposes better solutions for handicapped kids merely because these solutions utilize markets.

It is, unwittingly, a thoroughly sad confession.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

Steven Miller

Senior Vice President, Nevada Journal Managing Editor

Steven Miller is Nevada Journal Managing Editor, Emeritus, and has been with the Institute since 1997.

Steven graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Philosophy from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna). Before joining NPRI, Steven worked as a news reporter in California and Nevada, and a political cartoonist in Nevada, Hawaii and North Carolina. For 10 years he ran a successful commercial illustration studio in New York City, then for five years worked at First Boston Credit Suisse in New York as a technical analyst. After returning to Nevada in 1991, Steven worked as an investigative reporter before joining NPRI.