Late last year there was a big brouhaha about misconduct in Florida’s McKay Scholarship program, which allows disabled students to use public funds to choose a private school if they prefer. At that time the Miami New Times, a free weekly newspaper that features investigative reporting that sometimes hits the spot and sometimes just provides the filler between naughty personal ads and club listings, repeated claims about incompetence and fraud among some operators of private schools participating in McKay.
Even though the Miami New Times article was just a re-hash of an article they had run during the summer before, critics of special ed vouchers seized upon the piece as proof of the need to stop the rapid expansion of that type of program to other states, impose heavy regulations on Florida’s program to ensure that nothing bad could ever happen, or just shut down special ed programs because only public provision of services to disabled students could be trusted.
Diane Ravitch, in her usual scholarly and measured way, responded to the article by tweeting “Legalized child abuse in Florida?” Sara Mead, Andy Rotherham, and Ed Sector all circulated the New Times piece as proof of their earlier criticisms of McKay. When I attempted to put the scandal in perspective relative to misconduct and incompetence that is all too common in traditional public schools, Sara Mead clucked that I was like a child trying to excuse misbehavior by crying “he did it first!”
Well, I wonder if a story out of Alabama might help put things in perspective without sounding like an unreasonable child. It’s a story about a boy named Jose Salinas, or Little Joe, who has cerebral palsy. His mother wondered why he was acting unusually and repeatedly claiming that he couldn’t go to school because he wasn’t feeling well. So, she decided to attached a secret audio recording device to his wheelchair to find out what was going on at school.
“You drooled on the paper,” teacher’s aide Drew Faircloth could be heard saying impatiently. “That’s disgusting.”
“Keep your mouth closed and don’t drool on my paper,” teacher Alicia Brown said on the tape. “I do not want to touch your drool. Do you understand that? Obviously, you don’t.”
Over the three days of recordings, Salinas said Jose received about 20 minutes of actual instruction and spent almost the entire day sitting in silence with no one speaking to him.
“I could not believe someone would treat a child that way, much less a special needs child,” Melisha Salinas told ABCNews.com. “The anger in his voices … and the thing he was getting angry about, [Jose] just can’t help.”
“Why is my paper wet?” Brown demanded. “Look at me and answer. That’s not an answer. That’s not even a word.”
“Do you seen anybody else at this table drooling? Then, stop,” she said. “You have got drool all over your face and it is gross.”
Little Joe’s mom took the recording to school officials who suspended the teachers with pay. But within days the teachers were back working in the school, although no longer assigned to Little Joe. Angry parents protested the return of the teachers, who were then once again placed on administrative leave with pay.
Houston County Schools superintendent Tim Pitchford helped explain:
“I made a poor decision and re-assigned them back to school,” he said. “It was the wrong decision and I accept full responsibility.”
Alabama state law does not allow superintendents to fire teachers on the spot, Pitchford said. He has to make a recommendation to the board, which makes the final decision.
“From day one, it was obvious where this was going to end with the employees,” he said. “We knew where this process was going to end, but the process does not allow it to be immediate.”
Salinas was shocked to hear the teacher and aide were back at school.
“They were back at the school and my children were there so I got them out of school and so did several angry parents,” Salinas said. “I just lost all hope. Nobody was listening to me.”
Of course, if Alabama had a special ed voucher program, like McKay, Mrs. Salinas would not have had to secretly record misconduct, prove it to school officials, and then organize a protest to ensure that those teachers were not still in the school with her son. She could have just followed her good mother’s perception that things were going very badly and switched her child to another school with the same amount of public funding. How many Little Joe’s are out there without having their mistreatment recorded or protests organized?
Of course, examples of misconduct in traditional public schools is no more proof of the merits of McKay-like programs than examples of misconduct are proof of the need to regulate or eliminate special ed vouchers. For more systematic evidence on the merits of McKay, readers may wish to read the article that Marcus Winters and I published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, the leading AERA empirical journal, which finds that McKay competition increases student achievement for disabled students who remain in traditional public schools and lowers the rate at which students are newly identified as disabled.
But some people prefer mindless tweets over systematic evidence. And somehow I don’t expect Diane Ravitch, Sara Mead, or Andy Rotherham now to tweet that Little Joe proves the wisdom of McKay or that traditional public schools are equivalent to child abuse. They prefer to be selective in the anecdotes they tweet.
UPDATE — Andy Rotherham sent me a link to a Time Magazine piece he wrote last year in which he indicated a shift in views on McKay. He and Sara Mead once thought the program would skim less disabled students, but in the Time piece her writes:
So while vouchers don’t generally serve the absolute poorest of the poor, they do not skim off the most affluent or easiest-to-educate students either. Policymakers are learning as they go and these programs haven’t always operated as analysts assume. For example, in 2003, educational analyst Sara Mead and I wrote a paper outlining potential problems with vouchers for special education students in Florida. Largely, those issues, like skimming the easiest to serve students, have not come to pass.
Andy deserves credit for changing his mind based on empirical evidence and saying so publicly.
And while Andy did tweet the New Times reports of scandals (“And here
@saramead and I thought the problem with McKay Scholarships in FL would be bad policy incentives…how quaint!”) I did not mean to suggest that tweeting selective anecdotes is his standard communication tactic. Andy is hardly a Diane Ravitch. I was disappointed by his tweet on the New Times piece but it is definitely not emblematic of his policy analysis.