Senior Columnist EducationNews.org
Eastern New Mexico University
1) You have just released a report with Jay P. Greene on the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. First of all, what exactly is the McKay Scholarship Program and who is it designed to help?
McKay is a Florida program that provides generous vouchers to students who have been diagnosed with a disability and have been enrolled in a Florida public school for at least one year. The voucher is worth the lesser of the private school tuition or the amount that the public school system would have spent on the child had he remained there. Though it is often overlooked, McKay is currently the largest school voucher program in the country.
2) For what specific years did you review data in terms of this study?
We utilized student-level test score data from the 2000-01 school year until the 2004-05 school year.
3) The report seems to indicate that mildly handicapped pupils with learning disabilities seemed to do better remaining in the public schools. Are these pupils more motivated, or is it that the emphasis on Annual Yearly Progress may have made the difference?
Our study finds evidence that exposure to the McKay program has a positive effect on students with mild disabilities, but unfortunately we are not able to get inside-the-black-box to fully understand where this effect comes from. There are two potential causes that we think are the most likely. First, it could be that public schools respond to the challenge of students leaving for the McKay program by increasing their efforts to better educate those students who are eligible. Second, if special education is in fact under-funded as many suggest, then public schools might benefit financially as disabled students leave for private schools, which could put them in a better position to provide resources such as smaller classes and more individualized instruction. Future research is necessary to fully understand the reasons for this positive effect.
4) Apparently, those with more severe disabilities are neither helped nor hurt by the Mc Kay program. Is it that their potential if you will, may be hampered by their disability?
It is difficult to know for sure why exactly increased exposure to the program particularly benefited the mildly disabled students but had no real impact on students with more severe disabilities. One potential reason is that more private schools might be willing to accept students with milder disabilities than they are those with more severe disabilities. However, this may not be the case given that we know from prior survey research that the percentage of students with particular disability classifications of students in McKay do closely resemble those of the public school system. It is also possible that the standardized test scores are a better measure of the proficiency of students with milder disabilities, which makes it easier for us to see when a program has an impact on their scores. More research is necessary to understand this.
5) The Florida Department of Education apparently provided you with a rich data set. What data did you and Jay Greene investigate and what did you basically find?
Our focus was to evaluate the effect of a disabled student having more educational options under the McKay program on the quality of education he is provided in his public school. We used geographic distances as our measure of how much a public school was exposed to the McKay program. The idea here is that a public school surrounded by many private schools willing to accept a McKay voucher is more greatly affected by the program than a public school where there are few private options near enough that their students could reasonably attend them. For each public school and year we counted the number of private schools willing to accept a McKay voucher that were within a 5-mile radius of the public school. We then used the dataset of student test scores to evaluate the impact of an additional private school coming online within 5-miles of the student's public school on his academic achievement that year. With the rich dataset we could follow the academic proficiency of each individual Florida public school student over time, which allowed us to utilize what is known as a "fixed-effect" to account for unobserved differences in students. We were also able to use the dataset to evaluate the differential impact that the existence of another nearby private option had on the academic proficiency of students in different disability categories.
We found that students with relatively mild disabilities, particularly those with a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) made significant improvements in math and reading when a new private school nearby made itself eligible for the program.
6) Could there be some sort of "halo" effect on math and reading scores over the past five years, since that is where the emphasis seems to be placed in terms of the "high stakes testing" element?
High-stakes testing has certainly brought an emphasis on math and reading. However, our findings should not be particularly affected by this since there is no reason to expect that there is a relationship between been greater emphasis on math and reading and the number of private schools that make themselves eligible to accept McKay vouchers. That is, such a "halo effect" (if I am understanding you properly) would have an impact on everyone's math and reading proficiency that is unrelated to McKay exposure.
7) Apparently the largest number of students with disabilities are those with "Specific Learning Disability". Now, we know that there are various types of learning disabilities- spelling, math, reading and written expression. Do you think we need to perhaps disaggregate the data to look more closely at which group seems to be improving and why?
I think that it would be very useful to look at the impact of programs on students broken out by disability classifications. Many people's perception of special education is that of students with severe disabilities. In fact, the vast majority of students in special education have relatively mild disabilities, and many of those students are quite similar to students that have not been classified as disabled. Students with a relatively mild SLD have quite different educational problems than do students with autism, mental retardation, or a traumatic brain injury. Understanding special education requires understanding the different impact that programs have on these very different students.
8) Do you have data on the qualifications of the teachers in the voucher program?
Unfortunately, no. We do not have any information on students who use a voucher to attend a private school.
9) What important question have I neglected to ask about this study?
I think we covered a lot. Thanks!
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