MS Governor Phil Bryant makes a powerful case for Special Education Choice

March 31, 2014

Governor Bryant 2

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Down the stretch they come in Mississippi, and Governor Phil Bryant weighs in with a powerful case for reform. The bill will pass or die in the next two days, so stay tuned….


Children with Disabilities Have Much to Gain from Parental Choice in the Magnolia State

February 6, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mississippi legislators are considering a statewide choice program for children with special needs. Florida pioneered choice for special needs students in 1999, passing a pilot program that went statewide in 2001. Since 2001, all of Florida’s special needs students attending public schools have been eligible to take a McKay Scholarship to a public or private school of their choice.

More than a decade later, we find that 6 percent of special needs students use the McKay Scholarship Program directly by using it to transfer. Special needs students choosing to remain in the public school system however still benefit from the McKay program because it is there if they need it.

The charts below show that special needs students in Florida have made remarkable academic progress since McKay went into law. The first chart shows the progress for public school students with disabilities in Florida and Mississippi on 4th grade reading:

Florida vs. MS Spec 4R

Today Florida children with disabilities are now more than twice as likely to show basic reading skills as their peers in Mississippi. You find the same pattern in the 8th grade reading scores:

Florida vs. MS Spec 8R

 

Math scores show the same trend: narrow gaps opening to larger gaps over time. The point of these charts is not to brag about Florida, but to note a crucial source of improvement for special needs students in Mississippi. In the end, choice is no threat to the public schools in Mississippi but rather an opportunity. Florida’s public schools have more students (including students with disabilities), spend more and employ more people than before the onset of choice programs. That’s not the issue. The most important thing of all for special needs children is that the public school system now does a much better job in meeting their needs.

Florida enacted multiple reforms during this same period, so we cannot attribute all of these improvements to the choice program. Statistical analysis of variation in trends among special needs scores in individual Florida schools however confirmed that the McKay program contributed to the improvement.  Florida’s other reforms are also available for consideration.

Choice is not a threat to public schools in Mississippi, but rather a mechanism of the improvement of outcomes to the most disadvantaged students.  We can and should judge policies in large part with regard to how they treat the most vulnerable in our society. Look at the charts above and ask yourself the following question: if you had to be born as a child with a disability, would you want to grow up in Florida’s system of choice or Mississippi’s system of school assignment by zip code?  Would you want choice, or something much closer to “take it or leave it” in your schooling?

If you answered that question the way I expect, the next question is: what can Mississippi do to move ahead of Florida?

The answer- Mississippi should consider an even more advanced form of choice for special needs students than McKay. Choice for special needs students has the ability to empower parents to seek out the right type of education to meet the specific needs of their individual child. The Mississippi proposal draws inspiration from the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, which is a refinement of the McKay concept. This allows parents to choose to educate their child through a variety of different methods, including public and private schools, certified private tutors and therapists, online education programs and college/university courses. The idea is to give parents the maximum amount of flexibility possible so that they can deliver a customized education to meet the exact needs of their child.

When the federal government passed what became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the 1970s, a million special education students nationwide had been denied access to public schools. That was wrong, and IDEA stands as an important pillar of civil rights legislation. The law however promised an “Individual Education Plan” for every special needs child, and it failed to deliver the substance of this promise for far too many children.  More than a decade ago, the center-left Progressive Policy Institute and the center-right Thomas B. Fordham Foundation used the analogy of a maze to describe the bog of federally mandated paperwork emphasizing process over results to the frustration of both educators and parents.

You can’t really have an individual education plan without choice over who delivers what sort of education. Today it is time for the states, not the federal government, to take the lead in truly delivering the ability for parents to deliver a really meaningful individual education plan for students. Students, parents and the public school system will all win as a result.

 


Three Things Not to Miss in Wolf’s Post

May 16, 2013

Tyson-Spinks SI cover

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jay has already linked to Pat Wolf’s devastating knockout of the special ed smear campaign against Milwaukee vouchers. However, it’s such a long piece (there’s so much falsehood to debunk!) that I want to make sure the most important points don’t get overlooked:

  1. Pat catches the Department of Public Instruction lying about how many disabled students are in the voucher program. “Lying” is a strong word, but that is what happened here.
  2. USDOJ faults DPI for not requiring schools to report how many voucher students are disabled, so they can monitor discrimination against disabled students - but the reason is that state law gives them no power to do so, and regulations forbid them from doing so. The purpose of the regulation is to protect against schools using the information to discriminate against disabled students!
  3. “A statistical analysis that my research team conducted during our five-year evaluation of the program confirmed that no measure of student disadvantage – not disability status, not test scores, not income, not race – was statistically associated with whether or not an 8th grade voucher student was or was not admitted to a 9th grade voucher-receiving private school.  Our evidence is consistent with the expectation that private schools are admitting voucher students at random during that critical transition, as the law requires.”

Pat also points out, against the USDOJ’s claim that private schools in the voucher program are covered by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that the U.S. Supreme Court has twice reviewed and let stand Wisconsin court rulings finding that voucher schools are not government contractors, and students in the program are “parentally placed” not “government placed” in their schools, so the schools are not within reach of laws that apply to government services. In my (non-lawyer) opinion that does not make it a slam dunk that the voucher schools aren’t covered by ADA, because the ADA is such a badly crafted law. But it’s still worth remembering.

Update: This post has been modified because the original version didn’t state point #2 quite right. My apologies!


Wolf on Milwaukee School Choice and Disabilities

May 16, 2013

Pat Wolf does a beautiful job on the Ed Next blog of dispensing with a series of false claims about school choice and disabilities in Milwaukee.  You should really read it.  It’s a work of art.


Two New Studies on How School Choice Impacts Students in Vulnerable Demographic Categories

May 15, 2013

Race Card w watermark

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

At Brookings, Matthew Chingos looks at a huge swath of CCD data and finds no evidence that charter schools increase racial segregation. No surprise there, as readers of Win-Win already know. It’s been a while since I had occasion to trot out the old race card graphic – my sense is that the segregation talking point has had its day in the sun.

In Education Finance and Policy, Rajashri Chakrabarti looks at Florida school data and contributes the latest in a line of studies showing that schools act in self-interested ways, responding to structural incentives, when classifying students into special programs. Chakrabarti finds that schools threatened with vouchers due to low test scores increased the classification of students as Limited English Proficient, removing them from the pool of tested students; however, schools did not increase classification of students into special education, where they would become eligible for McKay vouchers. The obvious conclusion? All students should be eligible for vouchers – then there’s no system to game.

PS Sorry for the awkward headline – I couldn’t come up with anything snappier or any pop culture references. Uh . . . release the kraken!


Heads You Win, Tails You Still Win

March 5, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the opportunity to testify to the Senate Education committee in Texas today on the experience with parental choice programs for special needs children. One of the items of discussion was the following chart:

McKay Texas 1This phenomenon is often discussed regarding special education, but seldom quantified. In 2004 however officials from Education Service Center 20 (a regional body roughly covering school districts in the San Antonio area) provided the following chart to quantify the additional cost per special education student in a number of school districts. There were costs above and beyond those covered by state funding, and thus represented in effect a transfer from district general funds into special education funds on a per special education student basis.

 

Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby also testified to this interim committee in 2004, and she made the point that since school districts have been complaining that states don’t cover the full costs of special education for decades, that they have no cause to complain about students leaving with their (inadequate) funding. Districts can either keep these funds in the general education effort, or spend more on their remaining special education students (approximately 5% of Florida special education students directly utilize McKay but far more benefit from it) but either way they benefit.

 

 


More Reasonable Responses to My WSJ Piece

October 16, 2012

Yesterday I chronicled the unreasonable (and unfortunately predictable)  reaction of the teachers union to my WSJ op-ed suggesting that there were trade-offs between hiring more teachers and quality teachers.  I also received a number of reasonable, but still mistaken, responses attempting to explain the 50% increase in the teaching workforce without improved results by blaming special education and English Language Learners (ELL).  A letter in yesterday’s WSJ succinctly stated the argument:

In 1970 many disabled and mentally handicapped students were denied access to public education. Today these students are guaranteed a public education until the age of 22. Also in 1970, about 5% of the U.S. population was foreign born, compared with about 20% today. Many of these children enter the education system with limited English skills and are provided services to improve their mastery of English. Such services were unheard of in many parts of the country even 20 years ago.

It is obvious from these statistics that many more special-education teachers and English-language specialists are counted in the teaching profession now as compared to 1970. Mr. Greene claims that math and reading scores of 17-year-olds are unchanged since 1970. I would submit that the teaching resources devoted to students, excluding teachers of special education and limited-English speakers, is close to unchanged since 1970.

There is a plausibility to this argument, but special education and ELL can neither account for the 50% increase in teachers nor can they be ignored when considering the stagnation in student achievement.  Special education teachers constitute about 14% of the teaching work force and disabled students constitute about 13% of the student population.  So, if we imagine, as the letter writer does, that many of these disabled students were denied access to public education, then the addition of teachers was roughly commensurate with the addition of disabled students.  Excluding all disabled students and teachers, the reduction in student-teacher ratios between 1970 and 2012 would still have been roughly from 22 to 15.  If you wanted to use as the starting point 1980, 5 years after the start of federally mandated special education, the ratio still drops from 18.6 to 15.2.

But of course not all disabled students were denied access to schools before federal legislation.  Outside of the most severely disabled, the bulk of students now classified as disabled would have been present in school in 1970; they just weren’t being served very well.  So, if we added a large number of special education teachers to better educate students who were always present but who we now consider disabled, it should have resulted in much better outcomes for those students.  But overall outcomes are flat.

There is a disturbing habit among people who make the argument represented in the WSJ letter to act as if special education is a black hole from which no progress can or should be expected.  Yes, they say, we hired more teachers, but that was for more special education students and you couldn’t expect that to result in any progress.  But this is entirely wrong.  Special education can and should result in greater academic achievement, so even teachers added in that category should be contributing to better aggregate outcomes.

All of these arguments also hold true for ELL except that ELL is much smaller and involves fewer teachers than special education.  A critic could note that the world has given the US public education system more ELL students because of higher immigration, although the same cannot really be said of special education.  Other than the exclusion of severely disabled students, whose numbers are quite small, the distribution of disabilities in the public school student population should be roughly the same today as it was back then given that most disabilities are genetic in their origin.  It’s just that we didn’t serve many of those students well in the past and therefore should expect that achievement should be rising as we devote more resources to them.  More teachers should be producing more achievement.

And yes, more ELL students might require more teachers to produce the same achievement.  But in other ways our student population has become easier to educate.  Unless students have become significantly more difficult to educate across all dimensions, it’s not possible to explain away the facts that we have 50% more teachers without any meaningful improvement in outcomes.

Several years ago Greg Forster and I addressed this in our Teachability Index, in which we tracked 16 indicators of the advantages or disadvantaged that students bring to school and found that overall students are somewhat less challenging to educate now than they used to be.  And for a forthcoming book I have updated and improved upon that analysis and still find that students are somewhat easier to educate, so it should not require many more teachers to get the same results.

We can’t blame special ed and ELL to account for the lack of productivity in education as we’ve hired more teachers.  The problem is that we’ve ignored the trade-offs between teacher quantity and teacher quality.


Double Standards on Special Ed Placements v. Vouchers

July 25, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In today’s Examiner, AEI’s Michael McShane (an official JPGB super best friend) wants to know why none of the people fighting to kill the DC voucher program seem to have any objections to DC’s high rate of outplacement for special education students. Could it be because there are a lot more rich white special ed parents? McShane is here to chew gum and kick the cans of edu-hypocrites, and he’s all out of gum.

McShane doesn’t make the mistakes others have made in characterizing DC’s high rate of outplacement. Still, the stats are eye-popping, and will no doubt have many readers asking questions. McShane really doesn’t have the opportunity in a short piece like this to provide the necessary background. Thankfully, Jay wrote this a while back to bring people up to speed.


Ed Week on Distorted Special Ed Counts

March 15, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Ed Week dives into details on the difficult issue of how special education counts get distorted by a variety of factors. The article gets into a lot of interesting issues that make it difficult to get a clear picture of how many disabled students are served by the program. See also here for the researchers’ take on the issue.

One factor not canvassed in the Ed Week story – unsurprisingly – is the role of financial incentives in public school special education programs. Public schools are incentivized to label studnets as disabled in order to access additional funding. Study after study after study after study has confirmed the empirical relationship between the presence and strength of these incentives and rising rates of special education diagnosis in public schools. Private schools have no such distorting incentive and will thus report lower numbers of disabled students. (All this is true regardless of whether you think the true rate of disabilities is higher, as in the public system, or somewhat lower, as in the private system.)


Parenting Advice from Sara Mead

December 12, 2011

Sara Mead takes issue with my recent post that puts misconduct by some McKay schools in perspective.  I noted that those reacting to reports of misconduct by calling for the elimination or heavy regulation of McKay do not similarly react to incidents of misconduct in traditional public schools.  She likens this to a misbehaving child saying “he did it first.”  Sara urges us to be tough parents who don’t accept such weak excuses:

I was a very naughty child. When I was inevitably caught misbehaving, I often tried to justify it by saying “So-and-so (usually my sister or a classmate) did it first!” Not surprisingly, that argument never won the day or kept me from being punished.

I was reminded of this by Jay Greene’s recent blog post about reports of malfeasance and fraud by operators participating in Florida’s McKay Scholarship program for children with disabilities. Jay cites a series of examples of abuses in public school districts–basically a grown-up “he did it first!”–before stating that “existence of misconduct in traditional public schools in no way excuses the misconduct that has been uncovered in the McKay program.”

Glad we agree on that one!

Let’s ignore that I clearly said (in the comment she quoted!) that misconduct by McKay providers is inexcusable.  And let’s ignore that she mis-characterizes my call for perspective.  And let’s ignore my argument that the direct operation of schools by the government or heavy regulation of private providers unfortunately does not eliminate misconduct.

Instead, I would like to offer some parenting advice of my own.  When I was a child I sometimes tried to persist in making an argument, even when the evidence contradicted it.  My parents correctly taught me that when you are wrong, you should admit it.

I was reminded of this when thinking about Sara Mead’s repeated claim that the McKay Scholarship program provides incentives to increase the over-identification of students as disabled.  In 2003 she and Andy Rotherham released a report that made a series of speculative allegations against McKay, including:

special education vouchers may actually exacerbate the over-identification problem by creating  a new  incentive for parents to have children diagnosed with a disability in order to obtain a voucher. In fact, if special education identification led to funding for private school attendance, it would be unusual if this did not create an incentive to participate in special education in many communities, particularly those with low-performing public schools.

And in 2007 Sara Mead repeated the claim:

Offering vouchers to children with disabilities—and only children with disabilities—creates an incentive for parents to seek out a special education diagnosis in order to get a voucher. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some parents seek out diagnoses of learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to get their children additional help and accommodations on tests. McKay’s offer of a voucher for students with disabilities creates an even stronger incentive for parents to “game the system.” And Florida psychologists who diagnose youngsters with ADHD and other disabilities have told reporters that they see some Florida parents who are seeking these diagnoses just so they can get a McKay voucher.

But in 2009 Marcus Winters and I released an empirical examination of the issue that actually found the opposite.  McKay actually provided incentives to reduce the excessively high rate at which students are identified as disabled.  And in June of this year, the leading quantitative AERA journal, Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, published our article with this finding.

Nowhere has Sara Mead said that she was mistaken.  And last week Education Sector responded to reports of misconduct in McKay by urging people to read the 2007 report with this (and other) false or unsubstantiated claims.  People shouldn’t persist in repeating false claims.

I hope we can agree on that one.


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