McKay Madness! A Veil Of Ignorance? Or A Tail Of Willful Ignorance Wagging The Voucher Dog In Florida?

As I mentioned last week, over at Edpresso, Mathew Ladner offered-up a heaping serving of “Why Eduwonk is Wrong About McKay Vouchers.” In fact, not only does he think that this post about Florida’s McKay program is wrong, Ladner goes so far to say that: The McKay Scholarship Program is not just the best of the voucher programs in Florida, but in fact, the best voucher program in the country.

First a bit of relevant history before we try to walk Ladner back from the ledge. A few years ago in an effort to have some bipartisan compromise around special education, Chester Finn and I co-edited a wide-ranging volume (along with Charles Hokanson) about special education. It turned out to be a pretty influential publication, several of the authors ended up serving on the President’s special education commission and it helped lay the groundwork for the last IDEA overhaul. And, if you still have a copy around now is a good time to sell because they fetch a nice price on Amazon’s used book market. Ladner was an author of a chapter.

I mention all this because I have several copies I’m trying to unload now that I know the price is so ridiculous it illustrates that I generally think Ladner is a sensible fellow, even when we disagree. And he raises some good points in his Edpresso opus which you should read because I’m not going to repost large parts here. But, despite this, Ladner minimizes what I see as the key problems with McKay (he also raises an interesting Rawlsian argument which I think is also debatable in this case but will have to wait until another day). Rather than getting into a back and forth about some of the practical (and fixable) problems with the program, for instance accountability, let’s look at it more broadly in terms of special education policy:

First, giving parents a voucher for special education does increase the perverse incentive to encourage parents to seek special education identification. Ladner acknowledges this but argues that an equal disincentive exists for school districts so that in the end some sort of equilibrium presumably will prevail. Except isn’t the point of special education to identify the right students for services? Sure, districts do over-identify kids now, but it’s not good policy to create a strong disincentive for school districts to give kids services either since many genuinely need them (and unless you’ve been living in a cave you realize that school districts really don’t really like vouchers)? And if parents will seek out a special education identification to get their child extra time on the SAT, free private school tuition surely is an even greater incentive. And, this isn’t some abstract theory. Right now in places like Washington, DC, abuse of special education by affluent parents seeking private school placement at public expense is rampant under the federal law (see next graf). Sure, every district in FL is not like Washington (thankfully) but the incentives are the same.

And this is related to the second problem with McKay. It’s not really needed. Currently under the federal IDEA law parents whose children cannot be adequately served by the public schools are entitled to a private placement at public expense. It’s what leads to the problem mentioned above. It’s a good provision and I’m not arguing against it, but it’s basically adequate to the task now.

That’s related to the third problem. Because the program is intended to help special education students who are not being well-served by the traditional public schools you’d expect to see the participation rates skew toward more serious disabilities. That’s not the case. In fact, even if the numbers just mirror the overall special education population, that’s indicative of a problem because, again, you’d expect to see a skew in participation toward more intensive disabilities. Last we looked the numbers actually favored students with less serious disabilities. It looks as though McKay is just functioning as a run-of-the-mill voucher program under the guise of being a special education program.

And that’s related to the fourth problem. Today, about half of the students in special education are labeled as having learning disabilities. But while there are genuine learning disabilities, experts estimate that half to two-thirds of these students actually suffer from a teaching disability: They haven’t been taught to read properly. Ladner and I agree that this is a serious problem, and Presidents Bush (43) and Clinton have both emphasized federal reading programs and the last reauthorization of IDEA in 2004 really moved the ball on this issue along with Bush’s Reading First. But, despite this students still get into/end up in special education because of murky designations.*

Consequently, is it really good policy to offer vouchers based on such murky criteria? Sure, you get fraud in any public program but things like income are easier to verify in a standardized way than many special education designations (and again, the more seriously disabled students already have recourse under IDEA).

Of course, in the end McKay really isn’t about IDEA or special education anyway. It’s about vouchers. And it’s a good sell. That’s why the program is wildly popular among voucher advocates, it reduces people like me to appearing to be picking on disabled kids. I’m not against choice when it is linked with other policy goals, but I think that any choice scheme must ensure that the rights of special education students are protected and that these students have options. But singling out just special education students for vouchers like this is not the way to expand educational choice. It creates more problems than it solves.

*For a good look at some of the issues that McKay glosses over on this front check out Mark Kelman and Gillian Lester’s Jumping The Queue. McKay boosters would, of course, say that the answer to any inequities created by just giving special education students vouchers can be solved by giving all students vouchers. But let’s have that debate in a forthright manner.

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