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I had the opportunity to testify to the Senate Education committee in Texas on the experience with parental choice programs for special needs children. Senator Tommy Williams filed SB 115 in hopes of creating a Texas version of the Florida McKay Scholarship Program. I like to refer to the McKay Program as a “Myth-Buster” since it exposes the reality of two very misguided myths about parental choice programs.
The McKay Scholarship Program passed the Florida legislature in 1999 as a pilot program which lawmakers made a statewide program for children with disabilities in 2001. Then Florida Senate President John McKay, a father of a special needs child, sponsored the bill which passed the Florida Senate without a dissenting vote. A number of Florida Senators had never voted for a school choice bill before, and some of them never voted for one again, but all of them voted for this choice program.
Today the McKay Scholarship Program enrolls more students than any other state funded scholarship program with over 26,000 beneficiaries. The first parental choice myth shattered by the McKay Program is the old refrain that “private schools won’t educate special needs children.” Today 1,155 private schools educate special needs children in Florida through the scholarship program.
Florida’s experience with the McKay Program also busts the myth about parental choice programs harming public schools. Despite the fact that all children with disabilities have had the opportunity to transfer to a private school under the McKay program since 2001, today we find that only 6% of Florida special needs students directly utilized the program. Public schools in Florida had more students with disabilities attending today than in 1999 despite the McKay Program due to student enrollment growth.
Moreover, education reforms like the McKay Scholarship Program have helped to drive large academic gains for special needs students in the Florida public school system. Since 2003, Florida’s gains on 4th and 8th grade Reading and Mathematics exams have been three times larger than the national average. Other policy changes, including the grading of schools A-F based (with a heavy weight on academic gains for low-performing students) and a strong literacy strategy doubtlessly contributed to these gains. Empirical research however established a statistically significant link between the extent of private options available and special needs academic gains in public schools: greater options led to higher academic gains.
Public school officials have claimed for decades that special education is underfunded and that additional state funding is required. If this is the case, they have no cause to complain about special needs students leaving with the state funding that officials describe as inadequate.
This phenomenon is often discussed regarding special education, but seldom quantified. In 2004 however officials from Education Service Center 20 (a regional body roughly covering school districts in the San Antonio area) provided the following chart to quantify the additional cost per special education student in a number of school districts. There were costs above and beyond those covered by state funding, and thus represented in effect a transfer from district general funds into special education funds on a per special education student basis.
Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby also testified to this interim committee in 2004, and she made the point that since school districts have been complaining that states don’t cover the full costs of special education for decades, that they have no cause to complain about students leaving with their (inadequate) funding. Districts can either keep these funds in the general education effort, or spend more on their remaining special education students (approximately 5% of Florida special education students directly utilize McKay but far more benefit from it) but either way they benefit.
Objections offered to the program hold little merit. Critics complain that students leaving the public schools will forgo their rights under federal special education law. Parents choose to do so voluntarily however and negotiate with their new schools over the services to be provided. A survey of McKay Scholarship parents revealed strong rates of satisfaction with services provided in comparison to previous public schools. The survey found that 92.7% of current McKay participants are satisfied or very satisfied with their McKay schools while 32.7% were similarly satisfied with their public schools.
Nationwide, 2% of special needs students already attend private schools at public expense. This often happens after parents either successfully sues a school district or successfully threatening to sue a school district for failing to meet federal standards for the education of special needs children. Students whose parents can access attorneys specializing in federal disability law can access private schools, sometimes at very high costs to school districts. The McKay Program democratizes the process by allowing dissatisfied parents to leave with only their state money and without a lawsuit.
The McKay Scholarship program directly benefits thousands of students and indirectly benefits hundreds of thousands of parents by expanding their options if needed. The Florida program empowers parents and students and contributes to the improvement of the public education system.