Commentary | Education

Lessons—A Voucher Program Flunks Special Ed

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


A voucher program flunks special ed

By  Richard Rothstein

West Palm Beach, Fla. — Florida has two school voucher programs. One, small but widely publicized, pays private tuition for students who abandon public schools that have low test scores. Students from 10 Florida schools, all in low-income areas, can get vouchers next year; experience suggests that few will use them.

Less well known is a bigger program open to all special-education students. Any child whom a public school has identified as learning or physically disabled or otherwise in need of special help can get a voucher for private tuition.

Across the nation, voucher advocates say private choices should be extended to disadvantaged children, like the poor or those with disabilities, whom public schools have failed. But critics suspect that vouchers are really intended as a step toward privatizing education for the benefit of the well-to-do. Florida’s special-education program gives plenty of ammunition to those critics.

Special education certainly needs reform. Some children get special education when what they really need is extra help in regular classes. Even when students do have special needs, the school often does a poor job of setting goals for them, and does even worse at checking to see that those goals are met.

When Florida’s program began in 1999, it seemed like a smart response to special education’s failures. A child with disabilities who was not meeting a public school’s goals could get a voucher whose value was equal to state aid that would otherwise go for that child (about $4,500 a year for a student with mild learning difficulty). Children could go to any private school that took them, and the school had to take vouchers as full payment.

But one aspect of the plan raised eyebrows. Although students were eligible if they did not meet their public school’s special-education goals, private schools accepting those students were not required to monitor their progress ever again. Indeed, private schools with voucher students did not have to offer any special-education services at all.

Then, last year, Florida made changes that further compromised the program’s integrity. First, it said a voucher could go to any parent who believed a special-needs child would benefit. Evidence of unmet goals was no longer needed.

Second, private schools were allowed to charge tuition on top of the voucher. Many religious schools that offered no special services continued to take vouchers as full payment. But schools with good special-education programs could not provide them for the amount of the voucher, so they added fees. Now, while any child with a disability can get a voucher, only better-off families can afford schools offering special education. Consider what happened in West Palm Beach.

To enter the voucher market, one company, Educational Services of America Inc., bought a private school, the Progressive School, and shifted its focus to special education.

Its fifth-grade class, for example, had only eight students this year, making it small enough to accommodate the children’s needs. The teacher, Jennifer Fall, repeatedly praised a socially isolated child until others found prestige in befriending him. When a child with mild Tourette’s syndrome shouted out, he was not penalized, as others would have been. Ms. Fall gave an A to a student with attention deficit disorder as a reward for staying on task, although similar work by another would have earned a lower grade.

Attending the district’s regular schools in prior years, these children did not get the individual attention they required. Ms. Fall herself taught classes of 40 at a public school last year. “I almost swore off teaching,” she said.

The Progressive School took vouchers as full payment this year. But it can no longer afford to do so, and will add fees in September. Although its costs are low — its top teacher salary is $38,000, compared with $56,000 in nearby public schools — special needs cannot be met with a $4,500 voucher. Next year, parents of children with mild disabilities will pay an extra $2,500, parents of those with greater disabilities more.

One child who will not stay is Logan Marsh. His mother, Ramona, earns $14 an hour as a fire dispatcher. Ms. Marsh says that Logan gained intellectual confidence this year but that she cannot afford the new tuition. She will use his voucher at a church-run school whose large classes make no special accommodation for his learning disabilities.

Under other circumstances, the Florida voucher program might have put to the test the notion that private schools can improve special education. But the state never made even a pretense of comparing students’ progress in private and public schools. It has permitted vouchers to become only a subsidy for the relatively affluent.

And by highlighting the impossibility of providing special services for what public schools spend, the program also advertises how drastically Florida starves public special-education programs of adequate financing.

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