Last year, Arizona joined Florida, Ohio, Georgia, and Utah when it began offering scholarships to students with disabilities that they could use to pay private school tuition.
Few are worried that students who use a voucher to attend a private school will be harmed by the experience. Instead, as with any school choice program, the primary question revolves around whether the policy will harm the ability of public schools to provide a quality education to those students who are left behind. A new study provides some evidence that disabled students who remain in public schools actually benefit when their school is faced with more voucher-receiving competitors nearby.
In a new study for the Manhattan Institute, we evaluated the academic impact on public school performance of a Florida program similar to Arizona’s. In particular, we measured the impact of a new private school making itself eligible to accept voucher students within a reasonable commuting time of a disabled child’s public school on his academic achievement in math and reading. This is the first quantitative evaluation of a voucher program specifically tailored to disabled students of which we are aware.
Contrary to the suggestion that increased school choice would harm disabled students who remained in the public schools, we found that it significantly improved the education they were provided. Our results suggest that students with relatively mild disability classifications made substantially greater improvements on the state’s standardized math and reading exams than they would have in absence of the policy. Students with more severe disabilities were neither helped nor harmed by the increased availability of school choice.
Interestingly, students diagnosed with a relatively mild form of disability, known as Specific Learning Disability, made the most substantial improvements in math and reading when they were provided with additional educational options nearby. This is important because SLD is by far the largest category in special education across the nation and it accounts for about 61 percent of disabled students in Florida.
Why do vouchers for disabled students improve public school performance? It is difficult to know for sure. One potential reason is that public schools responded to the competitive pressure of the availability of private alternatives for disabled students by providing them with better services.
Another possibility is that, if special education is as financially burdensome to public schools as many suggest, then students leaving for private alternatives might actually free up public school resources to serve the remaining students better. Whatever the reason, the end result is that providing school choice to disabled students appears to have a positive impact on the quality of special education in public schools.
To be certain, we still have a great deal to learn about the impact of school choice in general as well as choice programs aimed at disabled students. Future research in Florida, Arizona and elsewhere is necessary in order to get a more complete picture of the consequences of these policies. So far, however, the evidence is quite encouraging for the use of school choice to improve the services that public schools provide to disabled students who were previously left behind.
Marcus A. Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Read their full report at www.manhattan-institute.org.