Special education vouchers

Patrick Gibbons

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires school districts to provide “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities.

The law ensures that parents get to work with the schools in the design of their child’s individualized education plan, and also lets them take legal action against school districts if the appropriate services are not provided to their children. Those include, if the public system is not providing appropriate services, education of the child in a private school.

In June 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that parents of disabled students could be reimbursed for the cost of a private tuition if they can prove that the public schools failed to identify their child as disabled and failed to provide the child with an appropriate education.

Dissent, in the Supreme Court and the public both, has focused on the cost of reimbursing parents who send their child to a private school. Some assert this would cost public schools billions of dollars. Dr. Jay P. Greene, an education researcher at the University of Arkansas, and Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, estimate that “the total financial cost of private placement is less than a billion dollars and amounts to less than one-quarter of one percent of total public school spending.”

That cost is miniscule compared with the more than $500 billion spent each year on K-12 education in America. As it turns out, says Dr. Greene, special-needs children in private schools make up only 1.1 percent of the entire special-needs-student population and just 0.14 percent of the total student population. Given the level of parent dissatisfaction with the quality of special education in America’s public schools, it is a surprisingly low figure.

Some public schools seek to avoid the additional expenses required by federal law by failing to identify students with special needs, delaying their entry into programs or providing ineffective programs instead. Then, when parents have pulled their children out of the public school, the financial burden of the programs gets shifted to the parent.

Forcing school districts to pay private-school tuitions if the programs are ineffective means districts should be more likely to work to accurately identify students with disabilities and provide them with a proper education. Additionally, the greater certainty that districts will end up paying private tuition should discourage them from falsely classifying troubled or disturbed children as special-needs students to acquire additional federal subsidies.

Of course, taking school districts to court requires parents willing to endure legal battles that are often long and protracted. Fortunately, there is a better way.

Already several states have special-needs voucher programs. Florida, with its McKay Scholarship Program, is perhaps best known. Thus, while public schools complain about the burden placed upon them by special-needs students, private schools – given even a portion of the subsidies public schools receive – compete to provide a proper public education program.

Unfortunately, Nevada missed the opportunity earlier this year to make progress on this front. Once again the Nevada Legislature failed to take action on Sen. Barbara Cegavske’s special-education voucher bill – an opportunity that won’t return until 2011.

Perhaps by then Nevadans will agree that private options can productively play a larger part in public education.