An Interview with Marcus Winters: Cure by Voucher?
Michael F. Shaughnessy - 9.8.09
Senior Columnist EducationNews.org
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico
1) Marcus, you and Jay Greene just released a report about kids with special needs and school vouchers. How did this come about?
This is the third in a series of studies we have done over the last few years on Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. In prior work, we have shown that parents who participate in the program get more desired services than they did in their public school and that public schools respond to these programs by improving the education they provide to disabled students who remain enrolled there.
We were also familiar with a limited body of research indicating that schools respond to financial incentives to diagnose students as disabled – that is, schools are more likely to diagnose a child as disabled if they receive additional resources when they do so. It occurred to us that the McKay program might alter the financial benefits that Florida schools receive when they diagnose students by making it possible that the diagnosed student would leave the public school with a voucher, and so we set out to investigate.
2) What states did you study?
We studied a program in Florida – the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. McKay was the first voucher program targeted to disabled students and is by far the largest. More than 21,000 disabled students used a McKay voucher last year.
3) Basically, what did you find?
We found that a public school is less likely to diagnose a student as having a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) – one of the mildest and most subjectively diagnosed disabilities – as more nearby private schools become willing to accept McKay vouchers as tuition. There is no reason that the number of nearby private schools that fill out the paperwork necessary to accept McKay vouchers should be related to the true level of disabilities in a public school. This result suggests that public schools respond to changes in their financial incentives when diagnosing a child as having an SLD.
4) Let’s examine all sides of this issue- if a child really has a vision problem, perhaps is legally blind, should he or she be labeled, diagnosed or should they be left to their own devices?
Of course a truly disabled child should be identified as disabled and receive special education services. Disabilities are real – including the learning disabilities covered in the SLD category – and we should continue to identify students who have these learning problems and provide them with the services they need. However, what we should avoid is placing students into special education who are not truly disabled. Some research suggests that schools use low achievement alone to diagnose a child as SLD, but there are reasons other than having a processing problem in his brain that a child might be underperforming – including poor school performance. Misidentifying students can lower the expectations for the child, costs taxpayers millions of dollars, and masks the real problems facing our public schools that have caused the child to under-perform academically.
5) Now, if by putting a child who is, say learning disabled in a private school, are we helping him or her in the short run and perhaps harming them in the long run?
The idea of McKay is to allow the parents to find the school that is right for them – whether that be a private or public school. Many parents are happy with the services that they receive from the public schools, and they remain enrolled there. However, there are many parents of disabled students who are dissatisfied with the services provided in their public school. Under the current system, such dissatisfied parents have the option of suing their school to attempt to acquire those services. McKay offers an escape hatch where the parent can pursue a desired school environment without turning to the courts. Of course, not all parents will be happy with their private school either, but they always have the option to move to another private school or go back to the public setting.
6) Given the amount of paperwork, and the amount of administrative meetings that have to be held, are there really any incentives to public regular education schools to seek out and label children with exceptionalities?
It is tough to really get inside the black box here. However, at the very least what our study and other research on this issue shows is that schools operate as if they believe there is a financial incentive to diagnose students as disabled. This growing body of research has found that when we alter the financial incentives to diagnose students the behavior of schools changes.
7) How would vouchers minimize the diagnostic process?
The goal is not to “minimize” diagnoses, but rather to ensure that only truly disabled students are diagnosed. To do that, we need to remove the financial incentive to diagnose students.
In most states, a public school receives additional resources for each child placed into special education, and prior research indicates that the incentives of this funding structure is related to higher disability placements. Vouchers put a check on the financial incentive to over-diagnose students. Public schools still receive additional resources for diagnosing students, however, when the school diagnoses a child it risks the he will use a voucher to leave for a private school and take all of his per-pupil funding with him.
8) What is the Mc Kay Scholarship Program and how does this fit in to the big picture?
Though less well-known than some other voucher programs, McKay is now one of the largest voucher programs in the U.S. It has also recently been a template for programs in Arizona, Utah, and Georgia. Special education voucher programs are the fastest growing type of voucher programs in the nation.
9) Often, in schools, guidance counselors put struggling students into a different class, providing a “fresh start“ if you will. Parents also do this in the hopes that a “fresh start“ in a different school will help the child. Isn’t this what you are talking about?
Getting a “fresh start” might certainly be one reason that a parent would want to use a voucher to attend a private school. Parents are also often dissatisfied with the level of services that they receive from their public schools. In many of these cases, the parent might be asking for more than is reasonable, and in other cases the public school likely isn’t doing a very good job. McKay allows parents to find the school that is best for them, and there might be a variety of reasons that a parent wants a switch.
10) You and Jay Greene used a multiple regression to investigate what was occurring in Florida. What were you trying to predictor and what were the variables entered into the equation?
The dependent variable was a binary variable indicating whether the child was newly diagnosed as disabled in a given year. The analysis controlled for observed characteristics about the child – race/ethnicity, free lunch eligibility, etc. – and also for a cubic function of the child’s prior math and reading test score. We also utilized an individual student fixed-effect, which controls for unobserved factors about the child – in essence, a student fixed-effect controls for the child himself. The variable of interest was the number of private schools within a 5 mile radius of the child’s public school that were willing to accept vouchers as tuition that year. This geographic measure of the public school’s exposure to a school choice program is consistent with prior research on the effect of vouchers and charter schools on public school behavior.
11) You and I both know that “specific learning disability” refers to a very heterogeneous population. How can you make any robust generalizations about such a diverse population?
SLD is a very heterogeneous population, and to be clear, there are many students who truly have an SLD. We by no means mean to suggest that students do not have these disabilities. Instead, our results are really speaking to how the school behaves toward the marginal child.
12) The special education diagnostic process is a double edged sword. On the one hand, we know how it affects kids self-esteem, self concept, etc but on the other hand, teachers know how difficult it is to teach these kids and how difficult it is for them to learn. Is your voucher approach a viable alternative?
A voucher approach like McKay still requires a diagnostic process – students must be identified as disabled in order to be eligible for the program. However, even in a world where all students could use vouchers, a school would still attempt to identify disabilities so that it can better meet his needs. The widespread use of McKay by students both with severe and minor disabilities shows that private schools are very willing to educate these students, and that many parents feel that they provide the resources necessary to meet their children’s needs.
13) What have I neglected to ask ?
I think we’ve cover a lot.
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