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Vouchers: The Florida Experiment

By Caroline Hendrie — January 08, 2004 5 min read
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Florida’s one-of-a-kind voucher program for children with disabilities does not require participating private schools to give standardized tests. Ask Jay P. Greene if that should change, and he says he’s of two minds.

“From the vantage point of a researcher, I would love to have test scores,” says Greene, a Davie, Fla.-based scholar who has studied the program as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City think tank. “But from the vantage point of ensuring quality services for these students, I’m ambivalent about whether requiring state testing would help or not.”

The question of testing is part of a larger debate over accountability swirling around Florida’s program of special education vouchers, known as McKay Scholarships. Even as proponents hold it up as a national model, critics of the fast-growing initiative see a lack of quality control as one of its chief drawbacks. Concerns about accountability helped sink proposals in Congress last year to include a voucher component inspired by the Florida program as part of the reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“As they tout McKay as a model for the rest of the nation, voucher supporters are giving those 19th-century snake-oil salesmen a bad name,” argues a report released last year by the Washington-based People for the American Way and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, based in Berkeley, Calif. Titled “Jeopardizing a Legacy: A Closer Look at IDEA and Florida’s Disability Voucher Program,” the report blasts the program as having “few standards and no genuine accountability.”

But defenders of the program, which has gone from serving a handful of children in 2000-01 to an estimated 12,000 students this school year, say such complaints ignore the power of parental choice to uphold high standards.

And despite the emphasis on outcomes that has become a rallying cry in special education, they also argue that public schools routinely fail to meet the needs of many youngsters who are supposed to be guaranteed a free, appropriate public education under the federal law.

“When you look at the IDEA, the public schools are only accountable for process,” says Robyn A. Rennick, the director of teacher training for the private Dyslexia Research Institute in Tallahassee and the president of Florida’s Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools. “The private schools are accountable for their product. If we don’t have a good product, we don’t stay afloat.”

School Seen as ‘Savior’

Among the hundreds of schools that accept voucher students in Florida is Center Academy here in Altamonte Springs, one of a chain of small, for-profit academies geared to children with mild to moderate learning disabilities.

Parents who use vouchers say they do put stock in the standardized tests administered by the school. But they also rely on less formal indices to gauge whether their children are making progress at the 50-student school, which serves grades 4-12.

When he came to the Altamonte Springs campus after years of struggling in public schools, Patricia A. Johnson’s son was a 6th grade nonreader hobbled by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Three years later, he loves reading the popular Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling. Johnson regards the $8,500-a-year school as her son’s “savior,” and she feels she has the Florida voucher program to thank.

“I could never afford Center Academy without it,” she says.

Named for a former state Senate president who helped create the program, the McKay Scholarships are available to children with individualized education plans who attended public school in Florida during the prior school year.

The amount of the vouchers varies, depending on the severity of disability, and the aid can be used to transfer to other public schools or to defray private school expenses.

The hundreds of private schools that accept the vouchers are subject to few regulations beyond those that govern all nonpublic schools in Florida. Some critics want to require the schools to give the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, the battery of exams that is the basis for the state’s rating system for public schools.

Parents of students with disabilities need the sort of data that would come from such testing to make informed choices, argue two scholars from the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council, in a report on the program released last year.

In “Think Twice: Special Education Vouchers Are Not All Right,” the institute’s Andrew J. Rotherham and Sara Mead deride as vague and ineffective the Florida law’s requirement that participating private schools be “academically accountable to the parents.”

Yet the scholarships’ supporters say that most private schools already give standardized exams, and that the state test would be inappropriate for schools that don’t follow the state’s curriculum guidelines.

The Accountability Question

For the Manhattan Institute’s Greene, who views the McKay program as “promising,” state accountability systems often fail to measure the kinds of functional skills that are important for many youngsters with disabilities to learn in school, but which other children acquire naturally.

“It’s a good thing to include disabled students in testing and accountability, and there are a lot of students for whom it will make a difference,” he says. “But for others, this provides no accountability at all.”

Greene also argues that requiring state testing could sharply limit the number of schools that take part in the voucher program. And he says policymakers should not lightly dismiss the perceptions of parents, who he maintains are generally good at figuring out if their children are advancing appropriately, even if they are not connoisseurs of educational practices.

“The efficiency with choice is you are most likely to get accountability for the customized needs of disabled students,” he says. “Parents can taste the pudding even if they don’t always know how to make it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week

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