NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Promise of Special Education Vouchers

October 4, 2011

In the fraught arena of school reform, few policy proposals have been more contentious than vouchers.  In allocating taxpayer dollars to children whose parents want them to leave failing public schools to attend private and parochial institutions, voucher programs have drawn the ire of teachers' unions and church-state separatists, as well as these groups' political allies.  And yet, despite discord and setbacks, vouchers seem to be experiencing a resurgence, specifically those programs targeting students with disabilities, says Marcus Winters, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute.

The education of this growing segment of public school students is a crucial policy issue, with increasing financial and educational implications:

  • In 1976, about 8.3 percent of public-school students were enrolled in special education, while that same population today makes up 13.2 percent of public school students.
  • The most substantial portion of the growth in special education has come from its mildest category, Specific Learning Disability (which includes conditions such as difficulty processing sight and sound, delayed language acquisition, and dyslexia) -- it has increased enrollment by 211 percent since 1976.

These points beg the question, why has the incidence of disability diagnosis increased so drastically in 25 years?  Several studies suggest that this increase has occurred (especially for mild diagnoses) because schools are incentivized to do so.  In school districts without voucher programs, a school may diagnose a student so that it can receive more funding from the state for that student's special education -- an excess of which can fund other programs.

Voucher systems, such as the McKay program in Florida, reduce this incentive by making schools more resistant to over diagnosis, fearful that the student will receive a voucher and take their state funding elsewhere.  Also, if implemented correctly vouchers have large potential to save the state money.  Furthermore, the classic "skimming" argument (that schools will only admit the best voucher students to boost their numbers) doesn't apply to special needs-based programs, as the benefitting students are usually low-performing.  Finally, recent studies have shown that the competition fostered between schools by these voucher systems improves the education of those students still in public schools.

For these reasons, voucher programs for students with disabilities offer great potential benefits for all parties involved.

Source: Marcus A. Winters, "The Promise of Special Education Vouchers," National Affairs, Fall 2011.

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