(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:
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:
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.