Researchers Find Special Education Voucher Programs Ensure Better Services and Outcomes for Students

Education Next News Release
For Immediate Release: October 7, 2009

Contact: Jay P. Greene, University of Arkansas, (479) 575-3162

STANFORD — While the recent debate in Washington, D.C. over the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which serves low-income children, has highlighted a sharp political divide in our nation’s capital over school choice, outside the beltway special education voucher programs tell a different story.  Now serving more than 22,000 students in four states — Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Utah — these programs, which serve families from all social and economic boundaries, reveal the kind of broad support that vouchers can generate.

Special education voucher laws are very straightforward: The parents of any child found in need of a special education can ask the school district to pay for their child’s education at a school the parent has identified as appropriate. In a feature article for the winter 2010 issue of Education Next, education researchers Jay P. Greene and Stuart Buck of the University of Arkansas, drawing on extensive previous research on the effects of special education vouchers, dispel several common myths about these programs and show how they have benefited handicapped children in states where they have been enacted, including those not in private placements.

Myth #1: Special Education Vouchers Are Unnecessary

Some claim that special education vouchers are unnecessary because disabled students already have the right to private placement under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Greene and Buck, however, point out that this ignores the complex procedures parents must follow in order to obtain a private placement, a primary reason such placement is quite rare. And when parents challenge districts over private placement for their children, school districts win more than 62 percent of the court decisions.

As of 2007, there were 5,978,081 students in special education nationwide, with fewer than 100,000 in private placements. Only 67,729 were being served by private schools at parental initiative, a mere 1 percent of disabled students.  Greene and Buck note that in Florida, where the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities program has offered vouchers to disabled students since 1999, vouchers allow nearly 7 percent of special education students to be educated in private schools at public expense, six times the national average for private placement.

Myth #2: Special Education Vouchers Raise Public Education Costs

As enrollments have steadily grown, the overall cost of special education has become a significant financial issue for school districts nationwide. However, Greene and Buck find that vouchers are unlikely to increase the burden on districts: Special education voucher laws typically stipulate that the voucher amount should reflect the severity of the disability and that the cost to the district may not exceed the average cost the state pays for the education of children with similar conditions.

For example, the value of McKay scholarships in 2006-07 ranged from $5,039 to $21,907, with an average of $7,206.  In contrast, Florida public schools spend close to $17,000 per disabled student.

Myth #3: Special Education Vouchers Cause Disability Enrollments to Rise

The opposite is true: Special education vouchers discourage school districts from over-identifying disabled students, because any student identified as disabled might leave the district for a private school, reducing district revenue received from the state.

Greene’s research has shown that vouchers slowed growth in special education enrollments in Florida. In another study, Greene found that the addition of seven private schools that accept McKay funding within five miles of a public school reduces the probability that a student will be identified as having a learning disability by 15 percent.

Myth #4: Special Education Vouchers Won’t Ensure Students Receive Needed Services

In a previous study, Greene found that parents who use vouchers are actually more likely to obtain necessary services for their child. When participants in Florida’s McKay voucher program were surveyed, only 30 percent reported they had received all services required under federal law from their previous public school, while 86 percent reported their McKay school provided all the services they promised to provide.

In addition, parent satisfaction at McKay schools is high:  90 percent of McKay respondents reported being satisfied or very satisfied with the school their child attends compared to 71 percent of public school respondents.

Read “The Case for Special Education Vouchers” available online at

Jay Greene is professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Stuart Buck is a doctoral student in education reform at the University of Arkansas.

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Caleb Offley (585) 319-4541
Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-6010

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