School Choice & Charters

Study Probes Special Ed. Students’ Voucher Access

By Sean Cavanagh — March 13, 2012 7 min read
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One of the most common charges leveled at private-school-voucher programs is that they are unwilling or unable to serve a substantial number of students facing serious academic challenges—including those with disabilities—leaving their public school counterparts to devote more money and resources to working with those populations.

But gauging the truth behind those claims is not easy, as evidenced by a debate over new research focused on that question.

Public and private schools have very different legal obligations, and overall philosophies, when it comes to working with students who have physical and learning disabilities and in how they identify and collect data on those students. In many cases, private schools choose not to gather that information from families—or they don’t gather it using standards comparable to those of public schools. In some cases, parents of special-needs students in private schools may be reluctant to provide the information, because of worries that it will stigmatize their children.

Identifying Disabilties

A survey of parents in Milwaukee shows differences in the types of disabilities of students served by a voucher program in the city and served by traditional public schools.


SOURCE: School Choice Demonstration Program

At least seven states currently have school voucher programs that specifically provide public funding for special-needs populations to attend private schools. But the question about whether voucher programs that target the broader, general student populations serve special-needs students at a level comparable to that of public schools is the focus of a recent study that has drawn a mix of praise and criticism—and underscores the difficulties in making judgments about the two sectors’ performance in that area.

The research, released last month by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, examines special-needs students’ participation in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, one of the country’s largest voucher programs. The examination concludes that special-needs students participate in the voucher program at a lesser rate than they do in the 80,000-student Milwaukee public school system—though their population is much higher than a state tally of special education participation for the city’s private-school-choice program.

The lead author of the research, Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, sees the research as an indication that Milwaukee’s voucher program is serving “more special-needs students than is commonly thought.”

But he acknowledges that the demonstration project’s research was hindered by many of the same barriers and limitations that frustrate scholars, and special education advocates, attempting to gauge how special education students are served in the public and private sectors.

Different Obligations

Federal law requires public schools to educate all students, regardless of disability, and to report on the number of students and types of disabilities served. Schools are also required to involve parents in setting academic goals for those children. Private schools typically don’t have to meet those same obligations to provide service to special-needs students and report on them.

Milwaukee’s voucher program serves students in a wide range of private school settings. The parental-choice program in that city, established in 1990, serves 23,000 students who attend 106 private schools, according to recent estimates. Participating students are eligible to receive $6,442 in state aid to cover private school costs.

The study, first published in the journal Education Next, used two methods to determine the participation of students with disabilities in the voucher program. (The demonstration project receives funding from the Joyce Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, which support Education Week coverage of the teaching profession and parent-engagement issues, respectively.)

The first method culls information from students who switched between the public and private sectors. The researchers found that the proportion of students identified as having a disability in the public schools appeared to be 60 percent higher than it was in private schools. The authors’ second method was based on surveys of thousands of parents of students in the voucher program and in the public schools. Based on those analyses, they estimate that between 7.5 percent and 14.6 percent of students in the voucher program have some type of disability.

While that number is lower than the 19 percent of Milwaukee public school students reported as having a disability, the authors note, it’s much higher than the 1.6 percent rate for voucher students offered by the state, which administrators the Milwaukee choice program. The 1.6 percent figure has been cited in a complaint disability-rights advocates submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice against the state of Wisconsin, alleging that the voucher program denies educational opportunities for special-needs students.

Julie Mead, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues that while the state’s number is flawed, the demonstration project’s research is misleading. The study cites estimates of special-needs students in the Milwaukee public schools that account for only a subset of that population, while the estimate of special education participation in the voucher program uses a different standard, which she believes leads to an apples-to-oranges comparison. (Ms. Mead is a fellow at the National Education Policy Center, a Boulder, Colo., organization that has taken issue with other research done by the demonstration project.)

Mr. Wolf responded that his analysis includes a test of the comparability of the voucher and public school special education estimates—and he says the results of that test support the study’s overall findings.

Long-Running Debate

The question of how many students with disabilities are participating in voucher programs—and which types of disabilities are served by those programs—reflects a long-standing, broader debate about whether taxpayer-financed alternatives to traditional public schools can and should be held to the same standards for serving all students. For Ms. Mead, the question is whether students with more severe disabilities “are concentrated in certain schools,” creating a system “in which only some schools have to serve all kids.”

Many special education advocates question whether voucher programs attempt to “counsel out” families of students with disabilities that they believe will be difficult or costly to serve, said Lindsay E. Jones, the senior director for policy and advocacy services at the Council for Exceptional Children, a professional organization for educators, administrators, and others in Arlington, Va. Her organization, which does not support vouchers, hears complaints of counseling-out occurring from its members, though it does not have data that speaks to how often it might occur.

“A reality of private schools, and a right of private schools, is to serve who they want to serve,” she said.

Malcom Glenn, the national director of communications for the American Federation for Children, a Washington-based group that supports vouchers, said the Milwaukee research, despite its limitations, is a sign that private-school-choice programs are more inclusive than critics claim. “Overall, they’re really encouraging,” he said of the estimates.

Mr. Glenn said he’s not convinced by voucher opponents’ views that those programs are screening students with disabilities to prevent them from enrolling—or creating hurdles for enrolling children with more severe disabilities. A much more critical factor in those enrollment decisions, he said, is what parents want and whether they’re convinced a public or private school can meet a specific need.

“The voucher programs are not for everyone,” Mr. Glenn said, adding: “For a lot of these kids, the public schools are working for them, and that’s great ... it would make less sense to take kids out of that environment.”

Sharpening the Focus

Mr. Wolf and the other researchers asked Milwaukee parents whether their children had a physical or learning disability, but did not ask about specific types or severity. He believes many of Milwaukee’s special-needs voucher students had “mild to moderate” disabilities, though his team also saw students with more intensive needs, such as Down syndrome, in private schools.

How might the data on special-needs students in general voucher programs be made more precise?

Ms. Mead suggests that states with general voucher programs could require private schools to provide more specific information on the special education students they serve, the severity of the disability, and the services provided to them. As it now stands, she said, estimates of private schools’ special-needs populations are based on assumptions, while public school information is rooted in hard data.

Mr. Wolf agrees that those steps would likely bring more accurate counts of their special-needs populations. But there are obstacles, he said, including some private schools’ and parents’ reluctance to disclose that information. He also questioned the fairness of holding voucher schools to the public schools’ standards for delivering disabilities services, in cases where the amount of public money they receive is not sufficient to cover those costs.

“There are people participating in these programs who are trying to escape the very kinds of information we’re trying to gather,” Mr. Wolf said. Concerns about privacy and other issues “unintentionally conspire to prevent us from understanding, recognizing, and counting the total numbers of kids with disabilities.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2012 edition of Education Week as Researchers Probe Special Ed. Students’ Access to Vouchers


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