Keeping Promises

Jay P. Greene

In 1975, Congress passed legislation giving students with disabilities the right to an appropriate education at public expense. But having a right is only as good as your ability to enforce it. In New York City and elsewhere, public schools regularly delay and frustrate disabled students seeking appropriate services—everything from tutoring to speech therapy to treatment of severe disabilities—making their federally protected right all but meaningless. Rather than compelling families with disabled children to contend with obstinate public school systems, we should give them the option of purchasing the services they need for their children from a private provider. That is, we should give them special-ed vouchers—good for the same amount of money that we already spend on them in the public school system—that they could then use to pay for private school. Not only would this bring better services to disabled New York students; it could also save the public money.

Many parents of disabled students have a lot of trouble ensuring that public schools give their kids an appropriate education. The parents have to know what they’re entitled to, and most do not. They must negotiate services from the local schools—but the schools are experienced in these negotiations, while the parents generally aren’t, so the schools often get away with minimizing their responsibilities. And even if parents win at the negotiating table, getting the schools actually to deliver on their promises is enormously difficult.

In the end, the only way to compel schools to keep their promises is for parents to engage in ongoing legal battles with the same people who take care of their kids each school day. Most parents have neither the resources nor the stomach to do that. Schools, on the other hand, see little downside in promising few services and delivering fewer. The worst that can happen is that courts will step in and order them to do what they were originally supposed to do; there are no punitive damages in special ed. Research by Perry Zirkel at Lehigh University also shows that courts tend to sympathize with school districts and that schools win most legal challenges from parents. And since children age, delays work to the schools’ advantage.

For all these reasons, most parents of disabled kids simply resign themselves to whatever the schools deliver—or fail to deliver. In New York City, according to an audit by state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, more than two-thirds of all students newly assigned to special education during the 2006–07 school year had to wait more than 60 days to enter a program. Roughly one-third of all eligible students fail to receive the services to which the schools have decided they’re entitled. And there’s no guarantee, of course, that these services will be any good.

If students believe that what the public schools have to offer is inadequate, why not give them the option of finding those services in the market? Every student identified as disabled could get a voucher worth no more money than the public schools would spend to educate that child (with more severely disabled students receiving more generous vouchers). Students could then use the vouchers to attend private school if they wanted. No one would have to use the vouchers, and students choosing to remain in public schools would retain all the rights they already have there. Disabled students would simply gain a mechanism—a market mechanism—to help them make their rights a reality.

And at a time of budget pressure, special-ed vouchers could end up saving taxpayers money, in two ways. First, if a private school’s tuition for a disabled child were lower than the value of the child’s voucher, then the total amount of the voucher wouldn’t need to be spent. Given the tendency of private schools to operate more efficiently than public schools, this outcome would likely be common. In Florida, for instance, where a special-ed voucher program is already operating, the average cost of a voucher for disabled students is $7,206—far below what taxpayers spend for the average special-ed student in public school.

Second, vouchers reduce the public schools’ tendency to move ever more students into special education, including many who aren’t in fact disabled but are disruptive or just struggling academically. Part of the schools’ motivation in expanding the special-ed ranks is to bring in additional subsidies from the state and federal governments—subsidies that the schools then tend to squander instead of spending on the required services. But schools may think twice about overidentifying disabilities for financial reasons if, every time they do so, they risk losing students and all their funding to private schools. An analysis that I have done with the Manhattan Institute’s Marcus Winters shows that Florida public schools have indeed become somewhat more reluctant to classify students as disabled with the increased availability of vouchers.

Special-ed voucher programs already exist not only in Florida but in Georgia, Ohio, and Utah as well. And the Florida program is working well, according to evaluations that I have helped conduct. Florida students are likelier to receive appropriate services in private school. The voucher program serves a representative distribution of disabled students, so that students with more severe disabilities, as well as students from low-income or minority backgrounds, can find what they need in private schools, just as their more advantaged counterparts can. (Students can also attend public schools other than their local ones with the vouchers, but few do.) Parents with voucher kids report being very satisfied with the program, adding that their children are less likely to find themselves bullied for their disabilities. Finally, the public schools feel some competitive pressure to improve their own services for disabled students, even as they become more restrained in categorizing students as disabled. In fact, Winters and I found that achievement levels for disabled students remaining in the public schools improved significantly when those students had more options to leave.

Because children with disabilities have a federal right to an appropriate education, parents in New York can already go to court to demand a publicly funded spot in a private school if the public schools fail to provide adequate services. At the moment, though, very few New York City students are in that situation: about 1,900, roughly 1 percent of all disabled students and less than 0.2 percent of the more than 1 million students in the city. The kids tend to be from the city’s most sophisticated, wealthy, and combative families.

Special-ed vouchers, then, would democratize an option currently enjoyed by an elite few. They would improve access to services for the disabled, reduce costs for taxpayers, and ease conflict between schools and parents of disabled students. It’s an idea that New York should pursue.


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