School Choice & Charters

Special Education Vouchers Prevent Mislabeling, Study Says

By Christina A. Samuels — August 20, 2009 1 min read

Earlier this week, I asked what single thing people would change about the special education system to make it function better. Marcus A. Winters and Jay P. Greene, two fellows at the Manhattan Institute, suggest that one solution could be vouchers.

The authors have written several papers in support of special education vouchers, and their latest report, released Tuesday, says the voucher program in Florida, called McKay Scholarships, has worked to slow down mislabeling of students as being in need of special education.

We contend that the reduction in SLD classification observed in the Florida schools after the introduction of a voucher program results from denying public schools what they understand to be the economic benefit of receiving a supplemental payment from the state for every additional child designated as suffering from an SLD. Thus, special-education vouchers appear to constrain costly growth in special-education enrollments.

That’s an interesting contention. My first thought is that there also seem to be disincentives to labeling a child, because you can’t just call a student “learning disabled” and wait for the money to roll in. There are certain responsibilities on the part of the school district that must be met for every child that is designated as being in need of special education services. Winters and Green address that issue:

Whether the revenue from state and federal subsidies for special education exceeds costs and offers schools a sufficient financial incentive to move students into special education who would not have been moved there otherwise is not something that can be observed directly. But we can infer the influence of those incentives from schools’ behavior. Since we know from previous research that schools increase special-education enrollments in response to financial incentives, we have reason to believe that the additional revenue that comes from identifying certain students as disabled exceeds the additional costs and, by implication, that the schools know that it does.

I haven’t done the research of these two authors, and my anecdotes as a reporter do not equal “data.” It’s my sense, however, that both parents and schools play a role in increasing special education designations. For parents in some communities, perhaps that designation comes with some extra help that they believe their child needs.

In other communities, schools could possibly be labeling children for the perceived financial benefit, but they also could be using faulty diagnostic tools. I wonder how widespread the use of response to intervention is in Florida, and if that intervention model could also be exerting some downward pressure on the number of students labeled as learning disabled. Supporters of RTI say that it is supposed to do just that.

The federal government, in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, has also made the overidentification of minority students for special education an issue that districts must address and try to prevent. Could that also be a factor here?

There’s also a possibility that because of the voucher option, some children are not being diagnosed a having a learning disability who legitimately have one. The authors note this possibility in their conclusion:

One could interpret the result that we and previous research found in one of two ways: under McKay, there is less overclassification; or, under McKay, schools respond to the risk of losing funding by failing to diagnose as disabled some students who are in fact disabled. Although we can only speculate at this point, the tremendous growth in special education over the last few decades, along with the fact that much of this growth has been confined to the mildest form of learning disability—which happens to be the one in which subjective diagnostic judgments play the largest role—leads us to believe that the former interpretation is more likely.

What do you think? Have the authors put forward a convincing case?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.