Information Underload: Florida's Flawed Special-Ed Voucher Program

Reports & Briefs | June 25, 2007

Students with disabilities have long had the right, under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), to attend private schools at public expense if the public schools in their community are unable to provide them with appropriate special educational services. But less than 1 percent of students with disabilities have such private placements, in part because these placements can be costly, complicated, and time-consuming to obtain under the existing law.

Florida's popular McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program seeks to tilt the balance in these students’ favor. The program provides parents with an alternative to expensive legal proceedings and complicated bureaucracy—a voucher that they can use at a public or private school of their choice. Florida's legislature approved the program in 1999 and named it after a then-state senator, John McKay, who is also the father of a special-needs child.

Today, about 17,900 of Florida's estimated 402,000 students with disabilities, or a little more than 4 percent, receive McKay vouchers. They attend 802 private schools at a total cost of nearly $108 million. That's up from just under 1,000 students, 100 private schools, and $6 million in costs during the program's 2000–01 debut as a statewide initiative. The program is now the nation’s second largest private school voucher initiative of any sort in terms of student participation, ranking only behind Milwaukee's 17-year-old school experiment with vouchers for low-income youngsters. And school choice advocates promote the McKay program as a model for other states and the federal government. Arizona, Ohio, Utah, and, most recently, Georgia have all passed similar legislation. Currently, six other states are weighing whether to follow suit.

But despite its growing popularity, the McKay program has not yet proven that it works as either an adequate school-choice or special-education reform measure. Unlike with Florida’s other school choice options, the state collects very little information from schools and students participating in the McKay program. McKay students do not have to take the annual state tests administered to public school students, and McKay schools are not required to report any information on student outcomes—which goes against the national trend toward standards and accountability in public education. Thus, it is virtually impossible to say whether special-needs children using McKay vouchers to attend private schools are faring better, worse, or about the same as they had in their old public schools. It is also difficult to determine whether the McKay program is improving existing special-education services, since, unlike public schools, McKay schools are not required to provide these services at all.

Expanding school options for all students, those with disabilities and those without, is a worthy objective. But McKay's lack of accountability requirements and its minimal quality and service expectations make McKay a seriously flawed program. Under the current structure of the program, taxpayers have almost no knowledge of how their money is being spent, and neither taxpayers nor parents have access to solid information about the performance of different McKay schools. For parents, the stakes are very high, as they are required to give up their due process rights under IDEA if they choose to participate in the McKay program. Parents, taxpayers, and the state's special-needs children deserve better.

This research was funded by The Annie E. Casey Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the author alone and do not represent the opinions of the foundation.

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