(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Thumbing through the latest edition of Education Next I found a letter from Sara Mead taking exception to Jay and Stuart’s previous article on McKay Scholarships. Mead’s argument seems to boil down to the idea that Jay and Stuart forgot that vouchers for children with disabilities are bad.
Jay and Stuart note in their response that Mead failed to cited any evidence for her opinions about special education vouchers. I will be happy to present some evidence that Ms. Mead is entirely mistaken. The above chart shows gains on the 4th grade NAEP reading exam between 1998 and 2009 for the nation and for Florida.
For those squinting at your IPAD, that big red column more than two and a half times bigger than the blue column is Florida. Florida beats the nation in progress for students with disabilities on all four big NAEP tests.
Now several other factors certainly were involved in driving Florida’s gains among children with disabilities. For instance, policy changes such as heavy weighting of children in the bottom 25% certainly played a role, and I suspect that the revamping of literacy instruction did as well. I make no claim that McKay was the sole cause of this improvement.
If however the fact that all children with disabilities gained the ability to attend private school early in the Aughts negatively impacted their learning, it is awfully difficult to see any evidence of it in their test scores. In fact, it seems far more reasonable to assume that it helped.
But there’s no evidence that children with disabilities need additional education options more than any other youngsters in underperforming schools, or that vouchers address the underlying problems in special education. Rather, voucher proponents have seized on this population because they are more sympathetic beneficiaries than poor and minority youngsters. Using children with disabilities to increase public support for vouchers may be smart politics, but it doesn’t mean that special education vouchers are good policy.
On the first point, I can’t help but wonder how much Mead has spoken to parents with children with disabilities. More broadly, this is quite an achievement for a single short letter: a number of unsupported assertions and faulty ESP regarding the motives of McKay supporters. It falls to me to break the news to Mead, but the case for special education vouchers is extremely powerful. If for some strange reason you wish to halt their progress into law, you’ll have to do better than to imagine theoretical problems.