Thursday, July 05, 2007

Florida's Flawed Special-Ed Voucher Program

Here's John Kirtley's response to the report, which concludes:

It's just ludicrous to expect a "one size fits all" solution to work in a
district like Dade where children speak over 100 languages and have such
diverse learning challenges. What we need to improve outcomes in special
education is uniformity of parental power, not uniformity of schools. Give
parents the power to choose the right school for their kids. Yes, help them
get information, but also trust them to make the right decisions for their
own children. The McKay Scholarship program does just that.

John also forwarded me the letter below from a McKay parent with this
comment: This is a letter that a McKay parent was moved to write after
reading the article about the Ed Sector report. I think it's a good example
of how parents have an intuitive ability to know if their children are
progressing, even if they aren't getting sophisticated information about
their child, their school or all the special needs children in the district
or state.


Education Sector Reports
Information Underload: Florida's Flawed Special-Ed Voucher Program
Author: Sara Mead
June 26, 2007

Read more about Educational Choice and Charter Schools

Students with disabilities have long had the right, under the federal
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), to attend private
schools at public expense if the public schools in their community are
unable to provide them with appropriate special educational services. But
less than 1 percent of students with disabilities have such private
placements, in part because these placements can be costly, complicated, and
time-consuming to obtain under the existing law.


Florida's McKay Program: A Response To Ed Sector

I read with interest the Education Sector report on Florida's McKay
Scholarship program, "Information Underload: Florida's Flawed Special Ed
Voucher Program."

I commend the writers for stating that parents of special education children
have long received no benefit from their "legal rights" under the
Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. They correctly point out that
only the wealthy and the connected have the ability to challenge the public
system and find a better school for their children.

I also commend the writers for showing that the McKay program busts two
other common myths perpetuated by opponents to parental choice. There is no
"creaming" of only the best special needs students. And over 800 Florida
private schools have responded in just a few years to serve special needs
children. Before such programs are created, opponents claim that private
schools will never serve these children.

The writer's main complaint is that children attending private schools do
not have to take the FCAT, the state assessment given to children in Florida
public schools. Further, they claim that the program is seriously flawed
because the parents and the public (that is, the Florida taxpayers), don't
have the ability to track the learning gains of the program overall, or the
learning gains at individual schools serving McKay children.

The writers omit this crucial fact: the public schools don't publish the
learning gains of these students either! The Florida Department of Education
does a very admirable job of publishing statistics on the percentage of all
special needs kids at some public schools reading and writing at grade
level. However, at many schools even this information isn't available. For
example, on the DOE website 73 of 253 Dade County elementary schools have no
information at all about the performance of special needs children. The
website explains that public schools with less than 30 children in this
category don't have to report that information. Thirty of those schools had
more than 20 special needs children. Over 600 of the 800 private schools
serving McKay children serve less than 30 scholarship children.

Taking snapshots of students at grade level at a school isn't measuring
learning gains. The writers are very upset that they can't track learning
gains of McKay students at private schools, but they can't track them at the
public schools either. Would such information on a statewide, district or
school level even be useful to special needs parents who are unhappy with
their own child's performance? Even the schools that give you a snapshot of
the percent of special needs kids at grade level understandably don't break
out categories of disability, or even by grade. Imagine you have a child
with ADD or Aspergers' who is struggling in school. Would it be useful to
you to know that 40% of special needs children of all disabilities in all
grades at the school read at grade level? I doubt that the many special
needs parents we have worked with would think so. They care about how well
a school, whether public or private, is meeting the needs of their own
child, not a large group as a whole.

The FCAT is a test designed to measure proficiency in a very specific
curriculum used in the public schools, the Sunshine State Standards. It is
an excellent curriculum. But it's not the only effective one-and certainly
not the only one useful for teaching special needs children. According to a
survey done by the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools, over 90% of
schools serving McKay children already administer a nationally recognized
standardized test like the Stanford 10 or the Iowa Basic Skills. Would
requiring McKay children by law to take such tests (which they already
administer) be enough for these critics? Why is the FCAT the only test that
can measure the progress of these students?

The issue the report raises is one worth serious discussion. How do we help
parents of special needs children get more information about school
performance as it relates to their own child's specific problems? But by
totally ignoring the fact that parents don't have that information about
public schools, the writers reveal their bias against parental choice. This
orientation surfaces in other ways, perhaps most revealingly so in this

"School choice works best when parents have access to accurate, comparable
information.but even then, parents sometimes insist on choosing poor quality

So even if parents had the information the writers desire, parental choice
is a bad idea because parents sometimes don't make good decisions. They
need someone smart to make them for them. I presume they mean just poor
parents, but I shouldn't make that assumption-maybe they believe parents at
all income levels have this problem. And heaven help them if they make a bad
choice, because

"Parents who become dissatisfied with a private school's special education
program after enrolling..have little recourse other than to pull their child
out of that school."

And, they forgot to mention, they can take the scholarship to another
private school of their choice or put their child back in public school.
Sounds pretty good to me-what other remedy do the writers want for the

The service the report does by raising the information issue is further
denigrated by arguments so silly that they should have been omitted. They
claim there is a "perverse incentive" for parents to try to get their
children classified as special needs in order to get the McKay
Scholarship-but the public school districts completely control the
classification! They cite as evidence of this "gaming" by parents the fact
that 10.4% of McKay kids are ADD and ADHD, vs. 4.2% of public school special
needs kids. But a more logical explanation is simply that children at these
lower disability levels have more readily available options to use with the

They miss the point on the real perverse incentive that has long existed-for
public school districts to quickly classify minority children as special
needs. There are both financial and operational incentives to do so. The
writers worry that the McKay program will incentivize districts not to
classify kids as special needs, which could hurt them. So which is it-are
kids being over classified by "gaming" parents, or under classified by the
districts afraid of losing students?

One of their final recommendations in the report: "Don't tolerate schools
that fail to serve students." Do they have the courage of their own
convictions? Will they apply that standard to all schools, public and
private? Our examination of Dade County alone yielded many public schools
with grade level proficiency for special needs children of less than 15%. Do
the authors want these public schools shut down or ineligible to receive
taxpayer funds for special education? Is that really the right way to judge
if progress is being made with these students?

The truth is, even those public schools are working for some children. There
are teachers at these schools making heroic efforts to help special needs
children. But despite these efforts some students will not be served well by
them. It's not a matter of blame or fault. It's just ludicrous to expect a
"one size fits all" solution to work in a district like Dade where children
speak over 100 languages and have such diverse learning challenges. What we
need to improve outcomes in special education is uniformity of parental
power, not uniformity of schools. Give parents the power to choose the right
school for their kids. Yes, help them get information, but also trust them
to make the right decisions for their own children. The McKay Scholarship
program does just that.


Letter from a McKay parent to the Tampa Tribune:
"It is virtually impossible to say whether special-needs children using
McKay vouchers to attend private schools are faring better, worse, or about
the same as they had in their old public school." This is the statement
taken from the report in the Tampa Tribune called, Think Tank Faults
Vouchers for Disabled by Marilyn Brown.

As a mother of a 13 year old boy that is on the McKay Scholarship, I want to
give you my experience with this magnificent program.
My son has a speech impediment, has a hard time processing the information
of which he read, and has 50% hearing loss in one ear. This all started in
Kindergarten when I was notified that he had a speech problem so I went
ahead and put him in the IEP program at the public school he was attending.

In first grade the teacher addressed a problem to me stating that when they
were learning the alphabet sound and how the words come together, that my
son couldn't get the sounds down properly and that he was memorizing the
book instead of actually reading it himself. When this issue wasn't getting
any better I went ahead and held him back and told the school to go ahead
and let him repeat the first grade and he passed.

From Second grade to the Fourth grade all I did was fight with the school
and my son. The school was only giving him 90 minutes a week in the IEP
program and the things he was saying about hating school was tearing me
apart ... saying that saying that he was stupid that he didn't understand
it, that he was stupid, that he was an idiot ...

As a mother, not a teacher, all I could do was rock my baby in my arms and
cry with him saying that he will go to college like his sister; that he will
be able to read the kind of novels that his sister reads at the kitchen
table. So I went ahead and found help in other places ...

Every day after school I would pick my son up from after school care when I
got off from work at 5pm, and take him to Huntington for extra tutoring on
his reading skills ... After a year and a half at Huntington they handed me
a packet about a school called (at the time before they changed their name
to Interactive Education Academy) Dyslexic Institution of America where they
tested him and gave him the therapy that was needed.

After a while of attending therapy there he was given a chance to attend
their private small school of about 50 students to the whole school. So this
meant smaller classrooms and the one on one with student and teachers.

Before his enrollment the director told me to apply and see if I am eligible
for a scholarship for "The McKay Scholarship" and I went for it. I also took
this information to the public school of which my child was attending and
they flat out told me that there was nothing more that school could do for

My son has been at the Interactive Education Academy for two years now, my
son now wants to get up for school, enjoys going to school, and doesn't cry
in my hands anymore ... My child reads magazines and chapter books out loud
to me and my daughter. The best part is he tells me that he is going to
attend college just like his sister.

For all I know if it wasn't for the McKay Scholarship I have no clue where
my child would be; maybe skipping school or getting into trouble because he
would still have the mind concept of I'm stupid why would I need school; now
his mind concept is that he learns different and needs more help then other

-Vicky Henwood-


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