NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Special Education and School Vouchers

March 8, 2012

Many private voucher schools have been accused of discriminating against students with disabilities in their admissions process.  Indeed, this accusation has become the central topic of litigation as advocates point out the low proportion of voucher students who are identified as disabled, say Patrick J. Wolf, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, John F. Witte, professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and David J. Fleming, assistant professor of political science at Furman University.

Wolf, Witte and Fleming offer an explanation of the disparity by analyzing the school choice system of Milwaukee.  Because public schools receive additional funding for the education of disabled students, they place significant resources in efforts to identify these students.  Private schools on the other hand receive no additional funding and, in some cases, intentionally avoid labeling students so as to avoid stigma.

  • In 2011, the Wisconsin State Department of Public Instruction estimated that only 1.6 percent of voucher students had disabilities.
  • In following student records as they switched from public to voucher schools, Wolf, Witte and Fleming found that on average, 9.1 percent were classified as disabled when attending private schools.
  • This rate rises to 14.6 percent for those students when they switch to public schools, suggesting 5.5 percent of students attending private schools were not identified when they would have been at public schools.
  • In other words, the identification rate in the public schools appears to be 60 percent higher than private schools.
  • Using additional statistical methods and data, the research team estimated that the actual percentage of disabled students in voucher schools ranged from 7.5 percent to 14.6 percent.

This suggests strongly that claims against voucher schools of discrimination are unfounded, and merely demonstrate a lack of recognition of the incentives that public and private schools face.  In fact, data collection efforts were complicated by voucher schools that chose not to identify disabled students as such because they believed it would do more harm than good.

Source: Patrick J. Wolf, David J. Fleming and John F. Witte, "Special Choices," Education Next, Summer 2012.

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