Offering vouchers for students diagnosed with special needs to attend private schools leads to fewer diagnoses and could save state and federal dollars, according to a new study by the pro-school-choice Manhattan Institute.

More than 20 percent of D.C. public school students are diagnosed with learning disabilities, compared with about 12 percent in Montgomery County and about 14 percent in Fairfax. Educators have long worried that failing districts label students as disabled when, in reality, they are behind academically for other reasons.

Vouchers could help the District, according to the study’s authors, because the city has a disproportionate number of special needs students and is obligated to send about 2,400 of them to private and boarding schools, which sometimes cost nearly $100,000 per student per year.

“D.C. is one of the districts that might benefit even more than most,” said Marcus Winters, co-author of the study, citing the millions of dollars the district has spent in legal fees and non-public tuition.

Under most of the special education voucher plans in place around the country, parents receive vouchers worth the amount that the public school system would have spent on their child.

Special education vouchers would check the rampant growth of public school students labeled as disabled over the past 30 years, thereby saving state and federal funds aimed at those pupils, the study argues.

Since 1977, the number of special education students has grown by 66 percent, to about 14 percent of the country’s school-aged population. According to the study, districts have a financial incentive to over-diagnose special needs because they receive extra money based on each student labeled as such.

The authors analyzed the success of Florida’s McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities, started in 2000. They found not only that parents preferred private schools, but also that students in nearby public schools became 15 percent less likely to be diagnosed with the most common category of disability. The authors reasoned that schools were wary to label students when it meant that the student could leave the public system.

Nancy Reder, spokeswoman for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said her organization opposes vouchers because they pull money from the public schools.

“We don’t have enough as it is,” she said. “Special education has never been fully funded.”

Source: Special Educaton

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Filed under: DC Special Education

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