Arizona Students with Disabilities thrive during choice era

May 16, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the chance to meet some of the folks from Raise Your Hand Texas a few years ago, and they seemed entirely delightful and respectable people. I’m afraid however that they have rushed off to form a judgement about the subject of education freedom from students with disabilities without examining the available evidence. We have statistical analyses of the impact of such programs on student outcomes for children with disabilities, surveys of parental satisfaction for participating parents, etc. but in the end this comes down to a gut check: do you believe choice for children with disabilities should be limited to those who can pay for it themselves or hire high-priced attorneys? Or do you believe that everyone can benefit from giving all children with disabilities the opportunity to seek education solutions with their share of funds?

Put me down in the latter category. If you put yourself in the former category, please feel free to explain how Arizona children with disabilities managed to show such strong gains during a period when they were being “oppressed” by not one but two different private choice programs for children with disabilities. You don’t have to trust me- go look up the numbers yourself.

As you can see, a large number of states (including Texas) either made zero progress or else saw declining scores for students with disabilities during this period. None of the states with functioning private choice programs for children with disabilities made it into the “Zero or less” club. Oddly enough several states with such programs operating during this period made it into the top 10, including Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Georgia and Indiana. Others with long-standing programs-including Florida and Utah- had more modest gains during this period but high overall scores in 2015 (NAEP science scores only go back to 2009 in the current framework).

None of this demonstrates that private choice programs drive academic improvement for students with disabilities remaining in public schools. Far more thorough studies make that case. The opposite proposition that such programs harm the academic progress of children remaining in districts- can survive neither a cursory examination of evidence nor formal statistical evaluation.

It is deeply misguided for Raise Your Hand Texas to attempt to “protect” Texas children with disabilities from more diverse schooling options, the ability to hire certified academic tutors and therapists, assistive technologies etc. Given a 12 year long effort on the part of the Texas Education Agency and 1,054 Texas school districts to undermine the intent of IDEA, I’m inclined to think that these children could use some protection from the public schooling system-as in the option to leave. As for the question of whether participating students have things to gain, you should listen to parents directly involved:

Texas Implemented a special ed cap, AZ implemented an ESA for special education children. Guess what happened next.

May 15, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Raise Your Hand Texas group has released a white paper opposing an ESA program for special needs students in the Lone Star State. It is alas replete with boiler-plate nostrums etc. but if private choice is terrible for children with disabilities attending district schools, you have an awfully hard time finding evidence for it in the NAEP. We can get NAEP trends for children with disabilities on all six NAEP exams for the 2009 to 2015 period. The Arizona legislature passed a private choice tax credit for special needs children in 2009, and followed that up with the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program in 2011.

Texas meanwhile during this period had the Texas Education Agency implementing a defacto cap on the number of special needs students in districts, without the slightest apparent protest from Texas districts, who implemented the program quite effectively. Ah, well, at least those Texas districts should have been doing a better job delivering special ed students for the children with disabilities they served, right?


Arizona authorities decided to expand options and increase freedom. As you can see, Arizona students with disabilities have demonstrated academic progress much better than the nation as a whole, which has either been treading water or actually declining. This looks pretty bad until you examine the scores for Texas students with disabilities, which are not only consistently worse, but which failed to show improvement in any of the six subjects covered by NAEP.

These trends obviously have factors other than choice which impact them, but if the theory is that ESAs are terrible for children with disabilities in public schools, we can reject the hypothesis. Texas has a special education disaster on its hands, while Arizona is making progress far and away above the national average. No student group has more to gain from choice than children with disabilities- including those who choose to remain in districts.