Assertions Can’t Trump Research in the Debate over Special Ed Vouchers

Sara Mead of the New America Foundation submitted a letter to the editor in response to our article, “The Case for Special Ed Vouchers,” which appears in the Winter 2010 issue of Education Next.

The purpose of our piece was to summarize a body of research supporting the desirability of special education vouchers. Sara Mead’s letter raises a number of objections, but she provides nothing to refute our evidence.

For example, she says “only a small percentage of children with disabilities have [private] placements, and not, as Greene and Buck contend, because the law’s processes for securing private placements are inadequate, but because the vast majority of children with disabilities can, and do, receive FAPE in the public schools.”

We described research by Mayes and Zirkel showing that parents tend not to prevail in legal disputes seeking private placement from public schools. We described how the rate of private placement increases six-fold when vouchers are available, indicating that court-awarded private placement hardly satisfies the need. And we cited the U.S. Supreme Court as authority that the process for obtaining court-awarded private placement is “‘ponderous’ and therefore inadequate.” How does Sara Mead refute this evidence? She doesn’t. She just asserts the opposite.

Similarly, Mead contends that special education vouchers create “perverse incentives for parents and educators.” Again, she ignores the several studies we cited, demonstrating that the current system of special education placement contributes to over-identification of disabilities and that vouchers would check that perverse incentive. And again she provides no evidence of her own.

Sara Mead’s letter almost feels like the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic.” She’s just contradicting us, not providing an actual argument with contrary evidence.

Finally, Mead questions our political motives, describing us as “using children with disabilities to increase public support for vouchers.” Rather than delve into an analysis of our or her motivations, we should stick to the evidence on the merits of the policy. There is a strong and growing body of evidence that offering special education vouchers to disabled students would be desirable public policy. We need not show that “children with disabilities need additional education options more than any other youngsters in underperforming schools,” as she suggests. Perhaps other groups would also benefit from expanded school choice. Our burden was to show that special education vouchers are likely to be beneficial and we believe that we have done so.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College