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Published in Print: June 18, 2003, as Survey Says Parents Using Fla. 'McKay' Vouchers Satisfied

Survey Says Parents Using Fla. 'McKay' Vouchers Satisfied

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Most parents who sent their children with disabilities to private schools through a much-talked-about Florida voucher program give the experience high marks, according to a study.

Compared with the public schools of their experience, parents surveyed for the study said, the private schools participating in the McKay Scholarship Program offered reduced class sizes and greater accountability in services for their children. In addition, they said, their children experienced less teasing about their disabilities and fewer incidents of assault by other children in the private schools.

The study, "Vouchers for Special Education Students: An Evaluation of Florida's McKay Scholarship Program," released last week by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, comes as the program is under national scrutiny.

As the only statewide voucher program for students with disabilities, the McKay program has been held up as a model. Some members of Congress, engaged in the periodic rewrite of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, have proposed measures encouraging states to establish similar programs.

Several national studies have come out in recent months either detailing what the researchers see as the virtues of the Florida program, or hoisting red flags. The program offers vouchers for students with disabilities whose parents believe the public schools haven't met their children's needs—whether or not the schools are considered failing in the eyes of the state. About 9,200 students are currently enrolled.

This latest report attempts to capture for the first time the program's performance through parents' eyes, said one of the study's authors, Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow of the New York City-based think tank. The study was based on information from telephone surveys conducted this spring of 600 parents of children who were currently in the program, and 215 parents who had pulled their children from the program.

"Relatively little has been known about [the program], because no one has collected data on the experiences of students in the program," Mr. Greene said in an interview from his Davie, Fla., branch of the Manhattan Institute. "At the same time, they are making arguments for or against the merits of the idea. These are debates in a vacuum of data."

'Efficient Accountability'

The authors found that 92.7 percent of currently participating parents were satisfied with their children's McKay schools, while 32.7 percent were satisfied with the public schools their children had attended. Parents saw class size drop from an average of 25.1 students per class in their children's previous public schools to 12.8 students per class in the McKay schools.

Forty-six percent of the parents reported that their children had been "bothered often" in public schools. In McKay schools, 5.3 percent of the parents said their children were "bothered often."

The 215 former participants, not surprisingly, were less pleased with the McKay schools. Of those parents who had taken their children out of the McKay program, 62.3 percent said they were satisfied with their McKay schools, while 45.2 percent were satisfied with the public schools the children has previously attended.

Mr. Greene said former participants cited a number of reasons for leaving, including a lack of transportation and an inability to find the right private schools for their children's specific disabilities. Still, 90.7 percent of the former participants said the McKay program should continue.

Critics of the McKay vouchers have noted that if children voluntarily move to private schools, as many presumably would under a voucher plan, they leave the security of the IDEA behind. The IDEA gives parents legal recourse if public schools aren't meeting their children's needs.

In the Manhattan Institute study, 86 percent of parents currently participating said their McKay schools provided all the services they had promised, while just 30.2 percent said their former public schools had done so. About 36 percent of the parents of former McKay participants said the public schools their children previously attended had delivered all services promised.

But a critic of the McKay program said the survey questions on promises were flawed.

"They asked whether McKay schools provided all that they promised to provide," said Nancy Keenan, the education policy director for People for the American Way, a Washington-based group opposed to publicly funded vouchers that did its own study of the McKay program. "But we don't know what it is that [McKay schools] promised. They could have promised chewing gum and an hour of art therapy."

Vol. 22, Issue 41, Page 14

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