Rhee Looks to Clean Up the DC Special Ed Barn with vouchers

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

There is a new contender in the race to enact the next McKay Scholarship-like voucher program for children with special needs: DCPS, led by the reigning Queen of the Cool Kids Michelle Rhee.

The Washington Times has the story.

This makes sooooo much sense. Special needs parents have been successfully suing their way to Cadillac Ferrari judgements and six-figure per year private school placements for years. Before you start to feel sorry for DCPS, it is worth noting their historical abysmal performance in fundamental tasks such as teaching children reading and math. We have almost zero reason to think that DCPS did anything better than catastrophically bad on average in dealing with the needs of special needs children. 

Also note, as Jay does on an as-needed-basis, that the horror stories of such placements routinely fail to note that the amounts involved typically constitute a rounding error of the total public school budget. DCPS does suffer from an unusual combination of its own historically high level of incompetence (they seem to lose early and often in court) and a group of sophisticated special needs attorneys who have become quite skilled at shooting fish in the DCPS barrell.

At times in the past, I have seen rather intellectually sloppy attempts to use the DCPS as a cautionary tale to warn people off of the idea of enacting a voucher program for special needs children. Well, let’s wipe this bug off the bottom of our boot again: a McKay program allows parents to leave for another public or private school only with (at maximum) the allegedly inadequate funding provided for the child’s education.

For decades, the claim made by the public school establishment in lobbying for higher special education funding has been that they have had no choice but to transfer endless billions of dollars out of general education budgets to fund special education.

Back in 2004, my friends at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and I caught Texas districts red-handed quantifying the amounts transfered from general to special education. Usually such claims are made by lobbyists in private conversations, or as unsupported legislative testimony, but TPPF found someone who had written it down:

…Figures presented to the Texas Legislature by officials from Regional Education Service Center 20. Public school officials in Texas relate that the state and federal government inadequately fund special education in Texas. Representatives of Education Regional Service Center 20 recently presented information before the House Select Committee on Public School Finance regarding the disparity between special education funding and special education spending in the San Antonio, Northside, Northeast, Alamo Heights and Floresville Independent School Districts.

In each district, representatives provided figures showing that districts spent hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars more on special education services than the funding they received from state and federal sources. While school district expenditures exceeded government funding for special education, the decision to spend monies above and beyond government funds was a decision made by the districts. The exact nature of excess expenditure is unknown. Whether additional monies were necessary or simply elective spending was not identified. Nor is it known if these expenditures were required to underwrite the cost of delivering government-mandated services.

In San Antonio ISD, Education Regional Service Center 20 figures show a disparity of $8,163 more spent than received per full time equivalent special education student. The disparity figures for the Northside, North East, Alamo Heights and Floresville districts were $3,536, $4,521, $7,992 and $2,949 respectively.

Any disparity between special education funding and special education spending must come at the expense of general education spending. Because education dollars are limited, money is diverted away from regular classroom instruction when districts decide to spend additional funds above and beyond government funding for special education.

The Education Regional Service Center 20 figures, for example, show that the San Antonio ISD spent over $17 million more on special education services than received from the state. Under HB 2465, every special needs student departing from San Antonio ISD with a Freedom Scholarship, despite having special education funding included, would lift a substantial funding burden from the district, freeing resources to either focus more on the remaining special education students, or for general education programs, or for some combination thereof.

So in other words, a voucher program allowing kids to leave with their normal allotment of general education funding and their special education funding would save the district money with each transfer.

So a McKay Program in DCPS would democratize access to private schools for all children with special needs from those who can access specialized attorneys to everyone. No one gets a Ferrari plan from McKay, just to opportunity to walk away with the money allotted for your child. The District spares itself a Ferrari payment and reduces the need to transfer general education funds.

Oh, and by the way, such a program would vastly increase the satisfaction of parents across a whole array of school measures.

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4 Responses to Rhee Looks to Clean Up the DC Special Ed Barn with vouchers

  1. Minnesota Kid says:

    Great post, Matt. So, why doesn’t Joe Lieberman role special education vouchers into his proposed reauthorization of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program? If Michelle Rhee is for reauthorizing the OSP (which she has stated, publicly) and is actually proposing special education vouchers for the District, presumably she would champion reauthorization of a package deal of full parental school choice in her city. And her allies in the Democratic party would…do…what?

  2. matthewladner says:

    It’s an idea, but I think DCPS ought to go forward with this whether Congress wants to authorize it or not. DCPS is covered by the Zelman decision, they can make better use of existing resources, and preempt the lawsuit industrial complex.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Whitney Duff, RiShawn Biddle. RiShawn Biddle said: Matthew Ladner notes that #DCPS may end up creating McKay voucher-style program for its #sped students http://bit.ly/a9CX95 #Rhee [...]

  4. [...] special-needs D.C. students in the style of Florida’s successful McKay Scholarship program. Matt Ladner explains how such a program would save the school district money while increasing parental satisfaction and [...]

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